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the thorn birds 12

12

Once a month Meggie wrote a dutiful letter to Fee, Bob and the boys, full of descriptions of North Queensland, carefully humorous, never hinting of any differences between her and Luke. That pride again. As far as Drogheda knew, the Muellers were friends of Luke’s with whom she boarded because Luke traveled so much. Her genuine affection for the couple came through in every word she wrote about them, so no one on Drogheda worried. Except that it grieved them she never came home. Yet how could she tell them that she didn’t have the money to visit without also telling them how miserable her marriage to Luke O’Neill had become?

Occasionally she would nerve herself to insert a casual question about Bishop Ralph, and even less often Bob would remember to pass on the little he learned from Fee about the Bishop. Then came a letter full of him.

“He arrived out of the blue one day, Meggie,” Bob’s letter said, “looking a bit upset and down in the mouth. I must say he was floored not to find you here. He was spitting mad because we hadn’t told him about you and Luke, but when Mum said you’d got a bee in your bonnet about it and didn’t want us to tell him, he shut up and never said another word. But I thought he missed you more than he would any of the rest of us, and I suppose that’s quite natural because you spent more time with him than the rest of us, and I think he always thought of you as his little sister. He wandered around as if he couldn’t believe you wouldn’t pop up all of a sudden, poor chap. We didn’t have any pictures to show him either, and I never thought until he asked to see them that it was funny you never had any wedding pictures taken. He asked if you had any kids, and I said I didn’t think so. You don’t, do you, Meggie? How long is it now since you were married? Getting on for two years? Must be, because this is July. Time flies, eh? I hope you have some kids soon, because I think the Bishop would be pleased to hear of it. I offered to give him your address, but he said no. Said it wouldn’t be any use because he’s going to Athens, Greece, for a while with the archbishop he works for. Some Dago name four yards long, I never can remember it. Can you imagine, Meggie, they’re flying? ’Struth! Anyway, once he found out you weren’t on Drogheda to go round with him he didn’t stay long, just took a ride or two, said Mass for us every day, and went six days after he got here.”

Meggie laid the letter down. He knew, he knew! At last he knew. What had he thought, how much had it grieved him? And why had he pushed her to do this? It hadn’t made things any better. She didn’t love Luke, she never would love Luke. He was nothing more than a substitute, a man who would give her children similar in type to those she might have had with Ralph de Bricassart. Oh, God, what a mess!

Archbishop di Contini-Verchese preferred to stay in a secular hotel than avail himself of the offered quarters in an Athens Orthodox palace. His mission was a very delicate one, of some moment; there were matters long overdue for discussion with the chief prelates of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Vatican having a fondness for Greek and Russian Orthodoxy that it couldn’t have for Protestantism. After all, the Orthodoxies were schisms, not heresies; their bishops, like Rome’s, extended back to Saint Peter in an unbroken line.

The Archbishop knew his appointment for this mission was a diplomatic testing, a stepping stone to greater things in Rome. Again his gift for languages had been a boon, for it was his fluent Greek which had tipped the balance in his favor. They had sent for him all the way to Australia, flown him out.

And it was unthinkable that he go without Bishop de Bricassart, for he had grown to rely upon that amazing man more and more with the passing of the years. A Mazarin, truly a Mazarin; His Grace admired Cardinal Mazarin far more than he did Cardinal Richelieu, so the comparison was high praise. Ralph was everything the Church liked in her high officials. His theology was conservative, so were his ethics; his brain was quick and subtle, his face gave away nothing of what went on behind it; and he had an exquisite knack of knowing just how to please those he was with, whether he liked them or loathed them, agreed with them or differed from them. A sycophant he was not, a diplomat he was. If he was repeatedly brought to the attention of those in the Vatican hierarchy, his rise to prominence would be certain. And that would please His Grace di Contini-Verchese, for he didn’t want to lose contact with His Lordship de Bricassart.

It was very hot, but Bishop Ralph didn’t mind the dry Athens air after Sydney’s humidity. Walking rapidly, as usual in boots, breeches and soutane, he strode up the rocky ramp to the Acropolis, through the frowning Propylon, past the Erechtheum, on up the incline with its slippery rough stones to the Parthenon, and down to the wall beyond.

There, with the wind ruffling his dark curls, a little grey about the ears now, he stood and looked across the white city to the bright hills and the clear, astonishing aquamarine of the Aegean Sea. Right below him was the Plaka with its rooftop cafés, its colonies of Bohemians, and to one side a great theater lapped up the rock. In the distance were Roman columns, Crusader forts and Venetian castles, but never a sign of the Turks. What amazing people, these Greeks. To hate the race who had ruled them for seven hundred years so much that once freed they hadn’t left a mosque or a minaret standing. And so ancient, so full of rich heritage. His Normans had been fur-clad barbarians when Pericles clothed the top of the rock in marble, and Rome had been a rude village.

Only now, eleven thousand miles away, was he able to think of Meggie without wanting to weep. Even so, the distant hills blurred for a moment before he brought his emotions under control. How could he possibly blame her, when he had told her to do it? He understood at once why she had been determined not to tell him; she didn’t want him to meet her new husband, or be a part of her new life. Of course in his mind he had assumed she would bring whomever she married to Gillanbone if not to Drogheda itself, that she would continue to live where he knew her to be safe, free from care and danger. But once he thought about it, he could see this was the last thing she would want. No, she had been bound to go away, and so long as she and this Luke O’Neill were together, she wouldn’t come back. Bob said they were saving to buy a property in Western Queensland, and that news had been the death knell. Meggie meant never to come back. As far as he was concerned, she intended to be dead.

But are you happy, Meggie? Is he good to you? Do you love him, this Luke O’Neill? What kind of man is he, that you turned from me to him? What was it about him, an ordinary stockman, that you liked better than Enoch Davies or Liam O’Rourke or Alastair Mac-Queen? Was it that I didn’t know him, that I could make no comparisons? Did you do it to torture me, Meggie, to pay me back? But why are there no children? What’s the matter with the man, that he roams up and down the state like a vagabond and puts you to live with friends? No wonder you have no child; he’s not with you long enough. Meggie, why? Why did you marry this Luke O’Neill?

Turning, he made his way down from the Acropolis, and walked the busy streets of Athens. In the open-air markets around Evripidou Street he lingered, fascinated by the people, the huge baskets of kalamari and fish reeking in the sun, the vegetables and tinsel slippers hung side by side; the women amused him, their unashamed and open cooing over him, a legacy of a culture basically very different from his puritanical own. Had their unabashed admiration been lustful (he could not think of a better word) it would have embarrassed him acutely, but he accepted it in the spirit intended, as an accolade for extraordinary physical beauty.

The hotel was on Omonia Square, very luxurious and expensive. Archbishop di Contini-Verchese was sitting in a chair by his balcony windows, quietly thinking; as Bishop Ralph came in he turned his head, smiling.

“In good time, Ralph. I would like to pray.”

“I thought everything was settled? Are there sudden complications, Your Grace?”

“Not of that kind. I had a letter from Cardinal Monteverdi today, expressing the wishes of the Holy Father.”

Bishop Ralph felt his shoulders tighten, a curious prickling of the skin around his ears. “Tell me.”

“As soon as the talks are over—and they are over—I am to proceed to Rome. There I am to be blessed with the biretta of a cardinal, and continue my work in Rome under the direct supervision of His Holiness.”

“Whereas I?”

“You will become Archbishop de Bricassart, and go back to Australia to fill my shoes as Papal Legate.”

The prickling skin around his ears flushed red hot; his head whirled, rocked. He, a non-Italian, to be honored with the Papal Legation! It was unheard of! Oh, depend on it, he would be Cardinal de Bricassart yet!

“Of course you will receive training and instruction in Rome first. That will take about six months, during which I will be with you to introduce you to those who are my friends. I want them to know you, because the time will come when I shall send for you, Ralph, to help me with my work in the Vatican.”

“Your Grace, I can’t thank you enough! It’s due to you, this great chance.”

“God grant I am sufficiently intelligent to see when a man is too able to leave in obscurity, Ralph! Now let us kneel and pray. God is very good.”

His rosary beads and missal were sitting on a table nearby; hand trembling, Bishop Ralph reached for the beads and knocked the missal to the floor. It fell open at the middle. The Archbishop, who was closer to it, picked it up and looked curiously at the brown, tissue-thin shape which had once been a rose.

“How extraordinary! Why do you keep this? Is it a memory of your home, or perhaps of your mother?” The eyes which saw through guile and dissimulation were looking straight at him, and there was no time to disguise his emotion, or his apprehension.

“No.” He grimaced. “I want no memories of my mother.”

“But it must have great meaning for you, that you store it so lovingly within the pages of the book most dear to you. Of what does it speak?”

“Of a love as pure as that I bear my God, Vittorio. It does the book nothing but honor.”

“That I deduced, because I know you. But the love, does it endanger your love for the Church?”

“No. It was for the Church I forsook her, that I always will forsake her. I’ve gone so far beyond her, and I can never go back again.”

“So at last I understand the sadness! Dear Ralph, it is not as bad as you think, truly it is not. You will live to do great good for many people, you will be loved by many people. And she, having the love which is contained in such an old, fragrant memory as this, will never want. Because you kept the love alongside the rose.”

“I don’t think she understands at all.”

“Oh, yes. If you have loved her thus, then she is woman enough to understand. Otherwise you would have forgotten her, and abandoned this relic long since.”

“There have been times when only hours on my knees have stopped me from leaving my post, going to her.”

The Archbishop eased himself out of his chair and came to kneel beside his friend, this beautiful man whom he loved as he had loved few things other than his God and his Church, which to him were indivisible.

“You will not leave, Ralph, and you know it well. You belong to the Church, you always have and you always will. The vocation for you is a true one. We shall pray now, and I shall add the Rose to my prayers for the rest of my life. Our Dear Lord sends us many griefs and much pain during our progress to eternal life. We must learn to bear it, I as much as you.”

At the end of August Meggie got a letter from Luke to say he was in Townsville Hospital with Weil’s disease, but that he was in no danger and would be out soon.

“So it looks like we don’t have to wait until the end of the year for our holiday, Meg. I can’t go back to the cane until I’m one hundred percent fit, and the best way to make sure I am is to have a decent holiday. So I’ll be along in a week or so to pick you up. We’re going to Lake Eacham on the Atherton Tableland for a couple of weeks, until I’m well enough to go back to work.”

Meggie could hardly believe it, and didn’t know if she wanted to be with him or not, now that the opportunity presented itself. Though the pain of her mind had taken a lot longer to heal than the pain of her body, the memory of her honeymoon ordeal in the Dunny pub had been pushed from thought so long it had lost the power to terrify her, and from her reading she understood better now that much of it had been due to ignorance, her own and Luke’s. Oh, dear Lord, pray this holiday would mean a child! If she could only have a baby to love it would be so much easier. Anne wouldn’t mind a baby around, she’d love it. So would Luddie. They had told her so a hundred times, hoping Luke would come once for long enough to rectify his wife’s barren loveless existence.

When she told them what the letter said they were delighted, but privately skeptical.

“Sure as eggs is eggs that wretch will find some excuse to be off without her,” said Anne to Luddie.

Luke had borrowed a car from somewhere, and picked Meggie up early in the morning. He looked thin, wrinkled and yellow, as if he had been pickled. Shocked, Meggie gave him her case and climbed in beside him.

“What is Weil’s disease, Luke? You said you weren’t in any danger, but it looks to me as if you’ve been very sick indeed.”

“Oh, it’s just some sort of jaundice most cutters get sooner or later. The cane rats carry it, we pick it up through a cut or sore. I’m in good health, so I wasn’t too sick compared to some who get it. The quacks say I’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time.”

Climbing up through a great gorge filled with jungle, the road led inland, a river in full spate roaring and tumbling below, and at one spot a magnificent waterfall spilling to join it from somewhere up above, right athwart the road. They drove between the cliff and the angling water in a wet, glittering archway of fantastic light and shadow. And as they climbed the air grew cool, exquisitely fresh; Meggie had forgotten how good cool air made her feel. The jungle leaned across them, so impenetrable no one ever dared to enter it. The bulk of it was quite invisible under the weight of leafy vines lying sagging from treetop to treetop, continuous and endless, like a vast sheet of green velvet flung across the forest. Under the eaves Meggie caught glimpses of wonderful flowers and butterflies, cartwheeling webs with great elegant speckled spiders motionless at their hubs, fabulous fungi chewing at mossy trunks, birds with long trailing red or blond tails.

Lake Eacham lay on top of the tableland, idyllic in its unspoiled setting. Before night fell they strolled out onto the veranda of their boardinghouse to look across the still water. Meggie wanted to watch the enormous fruit bats called flying foxes wheel like precursors of doom in thousands down toward the places where they found their food. They were monstrous and repulsive, but singularly timid, entirely benign. To see them come across a molten sky in dark, pulsating sheets was awesome; Meggie never missed watching for them from the Himmelhoch veranda.

And it was heaven to sink into a soft cool bed, not have to lie still until one spot was sweat-saturated and then move carefully to a new spot, knowing the old one wouldn’t dry out anyway. Luke took a flat brown packet out of his case, picked a handful of small round objects out of it and laid them in a row on the bedside table.

Meggie reached out to take one, inspect it. “What on earth is it?” she asked curiously.

“A French letter.” He had forgotten his decision of two years ago, not to tell her he practiced contraception. “I put it on myself before I go inside you. Otherwise I might start a baby, and we can’t afford to do that until we get our place.” He was sitting naked on the side of the bed, and he was thin, ribs and hips protruding. But his blue eyes shone, he reached out to clasp her hand as it held the French letter. “Nearly there, Meg, nearly there! I reckon another five thousand pounds will buy us the best property to be had west of Charters Towers.”

“Then you’ve got it,” she said, her voice quite calm. “I can write to Bishop de Bricassart and ask him for a loan of the money. He won’t charge us interest.”

“You most certainly won’t!” he snapped. “Damn it, Meg, where’s your pride? We’ll work for what we have, not borrow! I’ve never owed anyone a penny in all my life, and I’m not going to start now.”

She scarcely heard him, glaring at him through a haze of brilliant red. In all her life she had never been so angry! Cheat, liar, egotist! How dared he do it to her, trick her out of a baby, try to make her believe he ever had any intention of becoming a grazier! He’d found his niche, with Arne Swenson and the sugar.

Concealing her rage so well it surprised her, she turned her attention back to the little rubber wheel in her hand. “Tell me about these French letter things. How do they stop me having a baby?”

He came to stand behind her, and contact of their bodies made her shiver; from excitement he thought, from disgust she knew.

“Don’t you know anything, Meg?”

“No,” she lied. Which was true about French letters, at any rate; she could not remember ever seeing a mention of them.

His hands played with her breasts, tickling. “Look, when I come I make this—I don’t know—stuff, and if I’m up inside you with nothing on, it stays there. When it stays there long enough or often enough, it makes a baby.”

So that was it! He wore the thing, like a skin on a sausage! Cheat!

Turning off the light, he drew her down onto the bed, and it wasn’t long before he was groping for his antibaby device; she heard him making the same sounds he had made in the Dunny pub bedroom, knowing now they meant he was pulling on the French letter. The cheat! But how to get around it?

Trying not to let him see how much he hurt her, she endured him. Why did it have to hurt so, if this was a natural thing?

“It’s no good, is it, Meg?” he asked afterward. “You must be awfully small for it to keep on hurting so much after the first time. Well, I won’t do it again. You don’t mind if I do it on your breast, do you?”

“Oh, what does it matter?” she asked wearily. “If you mean you’re not going to hurt me, all right!”

“You might be a bit more enthusiastic, Meg!”

“What for?”

But he was rising again; it was two years since he had had time or energy for this. Oh, it was nice to be with a woman, exciting and forbidden. He didn’t feel at all married to Meg; it wasn’t any different from getting a bit in the paddock behind the Kynuna pub, or having high-and-mighty Miss Carmichael against the shearing shed wall. Meggie had nice breasts, firm from all that riding, just the way he liked them, and he honestly preferred to get his pleasure at her breast, liking the sensation of unsheathed penis sandwiched between their bellies. French letters cut a man’s sensitivity a lot, but not to don one when he put himself inside her was asking for trouble.

Groping, he pulled at her buttocks and made her lie on top of him, then seized one nipple between his teeth, feeling the hidden point swell and harden on his tongue. A great contempt for him had taken possession of Meggie; what ridiculous creatures men were, grunting and sucking and straining for what they got out of it. He was becoming more excited, kneading her back and bottom, gulping away for all the world like a great overgrown kitten sneaked back to its mother. His hips began to move in a rhythmic, jerky fashion, and sprawled across him awkwardly because she was hating it too much to try helping him, she felt the tip of his unprotected penis slide between her legs.

Since she was not a participant in the act, her thoughts were her own. And it was then the idea came. As slowly and unobtrusively as she could, she maneuvered him until he was right at the most painful part of her; with a great indrawn breath to keep her courage up, she forced the penis in, teeth clenched. But though it did hurt, it didn’t hurt nearly as much. Minus its rubber sheath, his member was more slippery, easier to introduce and far easier to tolerate.

Luke’s eyes opened. He tried to push her away, but oh, God! It was unbelievable without the French letter; he had never been inside a woman bare, had never realized what a difference it made. He was so close, so excited he couldn’t bring himself to push her away hard enough, and in the end he put his arms round her, unable to keep up his breast activity. Though it wasn’t manly to cry out, he couldn’t prevent the noise leaving him, and afterward kissed her softly.

“Luke?”

“What?”

“Why can’t we do that every time? Then you wouldn’t have to put on a French letter.”

“We shouldn’t have done it that time, Meg, let alone again. I was right in you when I came.”

She leaned over him, stroking his chest. “But don’t you see? I’m sitting up! It doesn’t stay there at all, it runs right out again! Oh, Luke, please! It’s so much nicer, it doesn’t hurt nearly as much. I’m sure it’s all right, because I can feel it running out. Please!”

What human being ever lived who could resist the repetition of perfect pleasure when offered so plausibly? Adam-like, Luke nodded, for at this stage he was far less informed than Meggie.

“I suppose there’s truth in what you say, and it’s much nicer for me when you’re not fighting it. All right, Meg, we’ll do it that way from now on.”

And in the darkness she smiled, content. For it had not all run out. The moment she felt him shrink out of her she had drawn up all the internal muscles into a knot, slid off him onto her back, stuck her crossed knees in the air casually and hung on to what she had with every ounce of determination in her. Oho, my fine gentleman, I’ll fix you yet! You wait and see, Luke O’Neill! I’ll get my baby if it kills me!

Away from the heat and humidity of the coastal plain Luke mended rapidly. Eating well, he began to put the weight he needed back again, and his skin faded from the sickly yellow to its usual brown. With the lure of an eager, responsive Meggie in his bed it wasn’t too difficult to persuade him to prolong the original two weeks into three, and then into four. But at the end of a month he rebelled.

“There’s no excuse, Meg. I’m as well as I’ve ever been. We’re sitting up here on top of the world like a king and queen, spending money. Arne needs me.”

“Won’t you reconsider, Luke? If you really wanted to, you could buy your station now.”

“Let’s hang on a bit longer the way we are, Meg.”

He wouldn’t admit it, of course, but the lure of the sugar was in his bones, the strange fascination some men have for utterly demanding labor. As long as his young man’s strength held up, Luke would remain faithful to the sugar. The only thing Meggie could hope for was to force him into changing his mind by giving him a child, an heir to the property out around Kynuna.

So she went back to Himmelhoch to wait and hope. Please, please, let there be a baby! A baby would solve everything, so please let there be a baby. And there was. When she told Anne and Luddie, they were overjoyed. Luddie especially turned out to be a treasure. He did the most exquisite smocking and embroidery, two crafts Meggie had never had time to master, so while he pushed a tiny needle through delicate fabric with his horny, magical hands, Meggie helped Anne get the nursery together.

The only trouble was the baby wasn’t sitting well, whether because of the heat or her unhappiness Meggie didn’t know. The morning sickness was all day, and persisted long after it should have stopped; in spite of her very slight weight gain she began to suffer badly from too much fluid in the tissues of her body, and her blood pressure went up to a point at which Doc Smith became apprehensive. At first he talked of hospital in Cairns for the remainder of her pregnancy, but after a long think about her husbandless, friendless situation he decided she would be better off with Luddie and Anne, who did care for her. For the last three weeks of her term, however, she must definitely go to Cairns.

“And try to get her husband to come and see her!” he roared to Luddie.

Meggie had written right away to tell Luke she was pregnant, full of the usual feminine conviction that once the not-wanted was an irrefutable fact, Luke would become wildly enthusiastic. His answering letter scotched any such delusions. He was furious. As far as he was concerned, becoming a father simply meant he would have two nonworking mouths to feed, instead of none. It was a bitter pill for Meggie to swallow, but swallow it she did; she had no choice. Now the coming child bound her to him as tightly as her pride.

But she felt ill, helpless, utterly unloved; even the baby didn’t love her, didn’t want to be conceived or born. She could feel it inside her, the weakly tiny creature’s feeble protests against growing into being. Had she been able to tolerate the two-thousand-mile rail journey home, she would have gone, but Doc Smith shook his head firmly. Get on a train for a week or more, even in broken stages, and that would be the end of the baby. Disappointed and unhappy though she was, Meggie wouldn’t consciously do anything to harm the baby. Yet as time went on her enthusiasm and her longing to have someone of her own to love withered in her; the incubus child hung heavier, more resentful.

Doc Smith talked of an earlier transfer to Cairns; he wasn’t sure Meggie could survive a birth in Dungloe, which had only a cottage infirmary. Her blood pressure was recalcitrant, the fluid kept mounting; he talked of toxemia and eclampsia, other long medical words which frightened Anne and Luddie into agreeing, much as they longed to see the baby born at Himmelhoch.

By the end of May there were only four weeks left to go, four weeks until Meggie could rid herself of this intolerable burden, this ungrateful child. She was learning to hate it, the very being she had wanted so much before discovering what trouble it would cause. Why had she assumed Luke would look forward to the baby once its existence was a reality? Nothing in his attitude or conduct since their marriage indicated he would.

Time she admitted it was a disaster, abandoned her silly pride and tried to salvage what she could from the ruins. They had married for all the wrong reasons: he for her money, she as an escape from Ralph de Bricassart while trying to retain Ralph de Bricassart. There had never been any pretense at love, and only love might have helped her and Luke to overcome the enormous difficulties their differing aims and desires created.

Oddly enough, she never seemed able to hate Luke, where she found herself hating Ralph de Bricassart more and more frequently. Yet when all was said and done, Ralph had been far kinder and fairer to her than Luke. Not once had he encouraged her to dream of him in any roles save priest and friend, for even on the two occasions when he had kissed her, she had begun the move herself.

Why be so angry with him, then? Why hate Ralph and not Luke? Blame her own fears and inadequacies, the huge, outraged resentment she felt because he had consistently rejected her when she loved and wanted him so much. And blame that stupid impulse which had led her to marry Luke O’Neill. A betrayal of her own self and Ralph. No matter if she could never have married him, slept with him, had his child. No matter if he didn’t want her, and he didn’t want her. The fact remained that he was who she wanted, and she ought never to have settled for less.

But knowing the wrongs couldn’t alter them. It was still Luke O’Neill she had married, Luke O’Neill’s child she was carrying. How could she be happy at the thought of Luke O’Neill’s child, when even he didn’t want it? Poor little thing. At least when it was born it would be its own piece of humanity, and could be loved as that. Only…What wouldn’t shé give, for Ralph de Bricassart’s child? The impossible, the never-to-be. He served an institution which insisted on having all of him, even that part of him she had no use for, his manhood. That Mother Church required from him as a sacrifice to her power as an institution, and thus wasted him, stamped his being out of being, made sure that when he stopped he would be stopped forever. Only one day she would have to pay for her greed. One day there wouldn’t be any more Ralph de Bricassarts, because they’d value their manhood enough to see that her demanding it of them was a useless sacrifice, having no meaning whatsoever….

Suddenly she stood up and waddled through to the living room, where Anne was sitting reading an underground copy of Norman Lindsay’s banned novel, Red-heap, very obviously enjoying every forbidden word.

“Anne, I think you’re going to get your wish.”

Anne looked up absently. “What, dear?”

“Phone Doc Smith. I’m going to have this wretched baby here and now.”

“Oh, my God! Get into the bedroom and lie down—not your bedroom, ours!”

Cursing the whims of fate and the determination of babies, Doc Smith hurried out from Dungloe in his battered car with the local midwife in the back an as much equipment as he could carry from his little cottage hospital. No use taking her there; he could do as much for her at Himmelhoch. But Cairns was where she ought to be.

“Have you let the husband know?” he asked as he pounded up the front steps, his midwife behind him.

“I sent a telegram. She’s in my room; I thought it would give you more space.”

Hobbling in their wake, Anne went into her bedroom. Meggie was lying on the bed, wide-eyed and giving no indication of pain except for an occasional spasm of her hands, a drawing-in of her body. She turned her head to smile at Anne, and Anne saw that the eyes were very frightened.

“I’m glad I never got to Cairns” she said. “My mother never went to hospital to have hers, and Daddy said once she had a terrible time with Hal. But she survived, and so will I. We’re hard to kill, we Cleary women.”

It was hours later when the doctor joined Anne on the veranda.

“It’s a long, hard business for the little woman. First babies are rarely easy, but this one’s not lying well and she just drags on without getting anywhere. If she was in Cairns she could have a Caesarean, but that’s out of the question here. She’ll just have to push it out all by herself.”

“Is she conscious?”

“Oh, yes. Gallant little soul, doesn’t scream or complain. The best ones usually have the worst time of it in my opinion. Keeps asking me if Ralph’s here yet, and I have to tell her some lie about the Johnstone in flood. I thought her husband’s name was Luke?”

“It is.”

“Hmmm! Well, maybe that’s why she’s asking for this Ralph, whoever he is. Luke’s no comfort, is he?”

“Luke’s a bastard.”

Anne leaned forward, hands on the veranda railing. A taxi was coming from the Dunny road, and had turned off up the incline to Himmelhoch. Her excellent eyesight just discerned a black-haired man in the back, and she crowed with relief and joy.

“I don’t believe what I see, but I think Luke’s finally remembered he’s got a wife!”

“I’d best go back to her and leave you to cope with him, Anne. I won’t mention it to her, in case it isn’t him. If it is him, give him a cup of tea and save the hard stuff for later. He’s going to need it.”

The taxi drew up; to Anne’s surprise the driver got out and went to the back door to open it for his passenger. Joe Castiglione, who ran Dunny’s sole taxi, wasn’t usually given to such courtesies.

“Himmelhoch, Your Grace,” he said, bowing deeply.

A man in a long, flowing black soutane got out, a purple grosgrain sash about his waist. As he turned, Anne thought for a dazed moment that Luke O’Neill was playing some elaborate trick on her. Then she saw that this was a far different man, a good ten years older than Luke. My God! she thought as the graceful figure mounted her steps two at a time. He’s the handsomest chap I’ve ever seen! An archbishop, no less! What does a Catholic archbishop want with a pair of old Lutherans like Luddie and me?

“Mrs. Mueller?” he asked, smiling down at her with kind, aloof blue eyes. As if he had seen much he would give anything not to have seen, and had managed to stop feeling long ago.

“Yes, I’m Anne Mueller.”

“I’m Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart, His Holiness’s Legate in Australia. I understand you have a Mrs. Luke O’Neill staying with you?”

“Yes, sir.” Ralph? Ralph? Was this Ralph?

“I’m a very old friend of hers. I wonder if I might see her, please?”

“Well, I’m sure she’d be delighted, Archbishop”—no, that wasn’t right, one didn’t say Archbishop, one said Your Grace, like Joe Castiglione—“under more normal circumstances, but at the moment Meggie’s in labor, and having a very hard time.”

Then she saw that he hadn’t succeeded in stopping feeling at all, only disciplined it to a doglike abjection at the back of his thinking mind. His eyes were so blue she felt she drowned in them, and what she saw in them now made her wonder what Meggie was to him, and what he was to Meggie.

“I knew something was wrong! I’ve felt that something was wrong for a long time, but of late my worry’s become an obsession. I had to come and see for myself. Please, let me see her! If you wish for a reason, I am a priest.”

Anne had never intended to deny him. “Come along, Your Grace, through here, please.” And as she shuffled slowly between her two sticks she kept thinking: Is the house clean and tidy? Have I dusted? Did we remember to throw out that smelly old leg of lamb, or is it all through the place? What a time for a man as important as this one to come calling! Luddie, will you never get your fat arse off that tractor and come in? The boy should have found you hours ago!

He went past Doc Smith and the midwife as if they didn’t exist to drop on his knees beside the bed, his hand reaching for hers.

“Meggie!”

She dragged herself out of the ghastly dream into which she had sunk, past caring, and saw the beloved face close to hers, the strong black hair with two white wings in its darkness now, the fine aristocratic features a little more lined, more patient if possible, and the blue eyes looking into hers with love and longing. How had she ever confused Luke with him? There was no one like him, there never would be for her, and she had betrayed what she felt for him. Luke was the dark side of the mirror; Ralph was as splendid as the sun, and as remote. Oh, how beautiful to see him!

“Ralph, help me,” she said.

He kissed her hand passionately, then held it to his cheek. “Always, my Meggie, you know that.”

“Pray for me, and the baby. If anyone can save us, you can. You’re much closer to God than we are. No one wants us, no one has ever wanted us, even you.”

“Where’s Luke?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” She closed her eyes and rolled her head upon the plllow, but the fingers in his gripped strongly, wouldn’t let him go.

Then Doc Smith touched him on the shoulder. “Your Grace, I think you ought to step outside now.”

“If her life is in danger, you’ll call me?”

“In a second.”

Luddie had finally come in from the cane, frantic because there was no one to be seen and he didn’t dare enter the bedroom.

“Anne, is she all right?” he asked as his wife came out with the Archbishop.

“So far. Doc won’t commit himself, but I think he’s got hope. Luddie, we have a visitor. This is Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart, an old friend of Meggie’s.”

Better versed than his wife, Luddie dropped on one knee and kissed the ring on the hand held out to him. “Sit down, Your Grace, talk to Anne. I’ll go and put a kettle on for some tea.”

“So you’re Ralph,” Anne said, propping her sticks against a bamboo table while the priest sat opposite her with the folds of his soutane falling about him, his glossy black riding boots clearly visible, for he had crossed his knees. It was an effeminate thing for a man to do, but he was a priest so it didn’t matter; yet there was something intensely masculine about him, crossed legs or no. He was probably not as old as she had first thought; in his very early forties, perhaps. What a waste of a magnificent man!

“Yes, I’m Ralph.”

“Ever since Meggie’s labor started she’s been asking for someone called Ralph. I must admit I was puzzled. I don’t ever remember her mentioning a Ralph before.”

“She wouldn’t.”

“How do you know Meggie, Your Grace? For how long?”

The priest smiled wryly and clasped his thin, very beautiful hands together so they made a pointed church roof. “I’ve known Meggie since she was ten years old, only days off the boat from New Zealand. You might in all truth say that I’ve known Meggie through flood and fire and emotional famine, and through death, and life. All that we have to bear. Meggie is the mirror in which I’m forced to view my mortality.”

“You love her!” Anne’s tone was surprised.

“Always.”

“It’s a tragedy for both of you.”

“I had hoped only for me. Tell me about her, what’s happened to her since she married. It’s many years since I’ve seen her, but I haven’t been happy about her.”

“I’ll tell you, but only after you’ve told me about Meggie. Oh, I don’t mean personal things, only about what sort of life she led before she came to Dunny. We know absolutely nothing of her, Luddie and I, except that she used to live somewhere near Gillanbone. We’d like to know more, because we’re very fond of her. But she would never tell us a thing—pride, I think.”

Luddie carried in a tray loaded with tea and food, and sat down while the priest gave them an outline of Meggie’s life before she married Luke.

“I would never have guessed it in a million years! To think Luke O’Neill had the temerity to take her from all that and put her to work as a housemaid! And had the hide to stipulate that her wages be put in his bank-book! Do you know the poor little thing has never had a penny in her purse to spend on herself since she’s been here? I had Luddie give her a cash bonus last Christmas, but by then she needed so many things it was all spent in a day, and she’d never take more from us.”

“Don’t feel sorry for Meggie,” said Archbishop Ralph a little harshly. “I don’t think she feels sorry for herself, certainly not over lack of money. It’s brought little joy to her after all, has it? She knows where to go if she can’t do without it. I’d say Luke’s apparent indifference has hurt her far more than the lack of money. My poor Meggie!”

Between them Anne and Luddie filled in the outline of Meggie’s life, while Archbishop de Brioassart sat, his hands still steepled, his gaze on the lovely sweeping fan of a traveler’s palm outside. Not once did a muscle in his face move, or a change come into those detachedly beautiful eyes. He had learned much since being in the service of Vittorio Scarbanza, Cardinal di Contini-Verchese.

When the tale was done he sighed, and shifted his gaze to their anxious faces. “Well, it seems we must help her, since Luke will not. If Luke truly doesn’t want her, she’d be better off back on Drogheda. I know you don’t want to lose her, but for her sake try to persuade her to go home. I shall send you a check from Sydney for her, so she won’t have the embarrassment of asking her brother for money. Then when she gets home she can tell them what she likes.” He glanced toward the bedroom door and moved restlessly. “Dear God, let the child be born!”

But the child wasn’t born until nearly twenty-four hours later, and Meggie almost dead from exhaustion and pain. Doc Smith had given her copious doses of laudanum, that still being the best thing, in his old-fashioned opinion; she seemed to drift whirling through spiraling nightmares in which things from without and within ripped and tore, clawed and spat, howled and whined and roared. Sometimes Ralph’s face would come into focus for a small moment, then go again on a heaving tide of pain; but the memory of him persisted, and while he kept watch she knew neither she nor the baby would die.

Pausing, while the midwife coped alone, to snatch food and a stiff tot of rum and check that none of his other patients were inconsiderate enough to think of dying, Doc Smith listened to as much of the story as Anne and Luddie thought wise to tell him.

“You’re right, Anne,” he said. “All that riding is probably one of the reasons for her trouble now. When the sidesaddle went out it was a bad thing for women who must ride a lot. Astride develops the wrong muscles.”

“I’d heard that was an old wives’ tale,” said the Archbishop mildly.

Doc Smith looked at him maliciously. He wasn’t fond of Catholic priests, deemed them a sanctimonious lot of driveling fools.

“Think what you like,” he said. “But tell me, Your Grace, if it came down to a choice between Meggie’s life and the baby’s, what would your conscience advise?”

“The Church is adamant on that point, Doctor. No choice must ever be made. The child cannot be done to death to save the mother, nor the mother done to death to save the child.” He smiled back at Doc Smith just as maliciously. “But if it should come to that, Doctor, I won’t hesitiate to tell you to save Meggie, and the hell with the baby.”

Doc Smith gasped, laughed, and clapped him on the back. “Good for you! Rest easy, I won’t broadcast what you said. But so far the child’s alive, and I can’t see what good killing it is going to do.”

But Anne was thinking to herself: I wonder what your answer would have been if the child was yours, Archbishop?

About three hours later, as the afternoon sun was sliding sadly down the sky toward Mount Bartle Frere’s misty bulk, Doc Smith came out of the bedroom.

“Well, it’s over,” he said with some satisfaction. “Meggie’s got a long road ahead of her, but she’ll be all right, God willing. And the baby is a skinny, cranky, five-pound girl with a whopping great head and a temper to match the most poisonous red hair I’ve ever seen on a newborn baby. You could’t kill that little mite with an axe, and I know, because I nearly tried.”

Jubilant, Luddie broke out the bottle of champagne he had been saving, and the five of them stood with their glasses brimming; priest, doctor, midwife, farmer and cripple toasted the health and well-being of the mother and her screaming, crotchety baby. It was the first of June, the first day of the Australian winter.

A nurse had arrived to take over from the midwife, and would stay until Meggie was pronounced out of all danger. The doctor and the midwife left, while Anne, Luddie and the Archbishop went to see Meggie.

She looked so tiny and wasted in the double bed that Archbishop Ralph was obliged to store away another, separate pain in the back of his mind, to be taken out later, inspected and endured. Meggie, my torn and beaten Meggie…I shall love you always, but I cannot give you what Luke O’Neill did, however grudgingly.

The grizzling scrap of humanity responsible for all this lay in a wicker bassinet by the far wall, not a bit appreciative of their attention as they stood around her and peered down. She yelled her resentment, and kept on yelling. In the end the nurse lifted her, bassinet and all, and put her in the room designated as her nursery.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with her lungs.” Archbishop Ralph smiled, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking Meggie’s pale hand.

“I don’t think she likes life much,” Meggie said with an answering smile. How much older he looked! As fit and supple as ever, but immeasurably older. She turned her head to Anne and Luddie, and held out her other hand. “My dear good friends! Whatever would I have done without you? Have we heard from Luke?”

“I got a telegram saying he was too busy to come, but wishing you good luck.”

“Big of him,” said Meggie.

Anne bent quickly to kiss her check. “We’ll leave you to talk with the Archbishop, dear. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” Leaning on Luddie, she crooked her finger at the nurse, who was gaping at the priest as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. “Come on, Nettie, have a cup of tea with us. His Grace will let you know if Meggie needs you.”

“What are you going to call your noisy daughter?” he asked as the door closed and they were alone.

“Justine.”

“It’s a very good name, but why did you choose it?”

“I read it somewhere, and I liked it.”

“Don’t you want her, Meggie?”

Her face had shrunk, and seemed all eyes; they were soft and filled with a misty light, no hate but no love either. “I suppose I want her. Yes, I do want her. I schemed enough to get her. But while I was carrying her I couldn’t feel anything for her, except that she didn’t want me. I don’t think Justine will ever be mine, or Luke’s, or anyone’s. I think she’s always going to belong to herself.”

“I must go, Meggie,” he said gently.

Now the eyes grew harder, brighter: her mouth twisted into an unpleasant shape. “I expected that! Funny how the men in my life all scuttle off into the woodwork, isn’t it?”

He winced. “Don’t be bitter, Meggie. I can’t bear to leave thinking of you like this. No matter what’s happened to you in the past, you’ve always retained your sweetness and it’s the thing about you I find most endearing. Don’t change, don’t become hard because of this. I know it must be terrible to think that Luke didn’t care enough to come, but don’t change. You wouldn’t be my Meggie anymore.”

But still she looked at him half as if she hated him. “Oh, come off it, Ralph! I’m not your Meggie, I never was! You didn’t want me, you sent me to him, to Luke. What do you think I am, some sort of saint, or a nun? Well, I’m not! I’m an ordinary human being, and you’ve spoiled my life! All the years I’ve loved you, and wanted to forget you, but then I married a man I thought looked a little bit like you, and he doesn’t want me or need me either. Is it so much to ask of a man, to be needed and wanted by him?”

She began to sob, mastered it; there were fine lines of pain on her face that he had never seen before, and he knew they weren’t the kind that rest and returning health would smooth away.

“Luke’s not a bad man, or even an unlikable one,” she went on. “Just a man. You’re all the same, great big hairy moths bashing yourselves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don’t see it. And if you do manage to blunder your way inside the glass to fly into the flame, you fall down burned and dead. While all the time out there in the cool night there’s food, and love, and baby moths to get. But do you see it, do you want it? No! It’s back after the flame again, beating yourselves senseless until you burn yourselves dead!”

He didn’t know what to say to her, for this was a side of her he had never seen. Had it always been there, or had she grown it out of her terrible trouble and abandonment? Meggie, saying things like this? He hardly heard what she said, he was so upset that she should say it, and so didn’t understand that it came from her loneliness, and her guilt.

“Do you remember the rose you gave me the night I left Drogheda?” he asked tenderly.

“Yes, I remember.” The life had gone out of her voice, the hard light out of her eyes. They stared at him now like a soul without hope, as expressionless and glassy as her mother’s.

“I have it still, in my missal. And every time I see a rose that color, I think of you. Meggie, I love you. You’re my rose, the most beautiful human image and thought in my life.”

Down went the corners of her mouth again, up shone that tense, glittering fierceness with the tang of hate in it. “An image, a thought! A human image and thought! Yes, that’s right, that’s all I am to you! You’re nothing but a romantic, dreaming fool, Ralph de Bricassart! You have no more idea of what life is all about than the moth I called you! No wonder you became a priest! You couldn’t live with the ordinariness of life if you were an ordinary man any more than ordinary man Luke does!

“You say you love me, but you have no idea what love is; you’re just mouthing words you’ve memorized because you think they sound good! What floors me is why you men haven’t managed to dispense with us women altogether, which is what you’d like to do, isn’t it? You should work out a way of marrying each other; you’d be divinely happy!”

“Meggie, don’t! Please don’t!”

“Oh, go away! I don’t want to look at you! And you’ve forgotten one thing about your precious roses, Ralph—they’ve got nasty, hooky thorns!”

He left the room without looking back.

Luke never bothered to answer the telegram informing him he was the proud father of a five-pound girl named Justine. Slowly Meggie got better, and the baby began to thrive. Perhaps if Meggie could have managed to feed her she might have developed more rapport with the scrawny, bad-tempered little thing, but she had absolutely no milk in the plenteous breasts Luke had so loved to suck. That’s an ironic justice, she thought. She dutifully changed and bottle-fed the red-faced, redheaded morsel just as custom dictated she should, waiting for the commencement of some wonderful, surging emotion. But it never came; she felt no desire to smother the tiny face with kisses, or bite the wee fingers, or do any of the thousand silly things mothers loved to do with babies. It didn’t feel like her baby, and it didn’t want or need her any more than she did it. It, it! Her, her! She couldn’t even remember to call it her.

Luddie and Anne never dreamed Meggie did not adore Justine, that she felt less for Justine than she had for any of her mother’s younger babies. Whenever Justine cried Meggie was right there to pick her up, croon to her, rock her, and never was a baby drier or more comfortable. The strange thing was that Justine didn’t seem to want to be picked up or crooned over; she quieted much faster if she was left alone.

As time went on she improved in looks. Her infant skin lost its redness, acquired that thin blue-veined transparency which goes so often with red hair, and her little arms and legs filled out to pleasing plumpness. The hair began to curl and thicken and to assume forever the same violent shade her grandfather Paddy had owned. Everyone waited anxiously to see what color her eyes would turn out to be, Luddie betting on her father’s blue, Anne on her mother’s grey, Meggie without an opinion. But Justine’s eyes were very definitely her own, and unnerving to say the least. At six weeks they began to change, and by the ninth week had gained their final color and form. No one had even seen anything like them. Around the outer rim of the iris was a very dark grey ring, but the iris itself was so pale it couldn’t be called either blue or grey; the closest description of the color was a sort of dark white. They were riveting, uncomfortable, inhuman eyes, rather blind-looking; but as time went on it was obvious Justine saw through them very well.

Though he didn’t mention it, Doc Smith had been worried by the size of her head when she was born, and kept a close watch on it for the first six months of her life; he had wondered, especially after seeing those strange eyes, if she didn’t perhaps have what he still called water on the brain, though the textbooks these days were calling it hydrocephalus. But it appeared Justine wasn’t suffering from any kind of cerebral dysfunction or malformation; she just had a very big head, and as she grew the rest of her more or less caught up to it.

Luke stayed away. Meggie had written to him repeatedly, but he neither answered nor came to see his child. In a way she was glad; she wouldn’t have known what to say to him, and she didn’t think he would be at all entranced with the odd little creature who was his daughter. Had Justine been a strapping big son he might have relented, but Meggie was fiercely glad she wasn’t. She was living proof the great Luke O’Neill wasn’t perfect, for if he was he would surely have sired nothing but sons.

The baby thrived better than Meggie did, recovered faster from the birth ordeal. By the time she was four months old she ceased to cry so much and began to amuse herself as she lay in her bassinet, fiddling and pinching at the rows of brightly colored beads strung within her reach. But she never smiled at anyone, even in the guise of gas pains.

The Wet came early, in October, and it was a very wet Wet. The humidity climbed to 100 percent and stayed there; every day for hours the rain roared and whipped about Himmelhoch, melting the scarlet soil, drenching the cane, filling the wide, deep Dungloe River but not overflowing it, for its course was so short the water got away into the sea quickly enough. While Justine lay in her bassinet contemplating her world through those strange eyes, Meggie sat dully watching Bartle Frere disappear behind a wall of dense rain, then reappear.

The sun would come out, writhing veils of steam issue from the ground, the wet cane shimmer and sparkle diamond prisms, and the river seem like a great gold snake. Then hanging right across the vault of the sky a double rainbow would materialize, perfect throughout its length on both bows, so rich in its coloring against the sullen dark-blue clouds that all save a North Queensland landscape would have been paled and diminished. Being North Queensland, nothing was washed out by its ethereal glow, and Meggie thought she knew why the Gillanbone countryside was so brown and grey; North Queensland had usurped its share of the palette as well.

One day at the beginning of December. Anne came out onto the veranda and sat down beside her, watching her. Oh, she was so thin, so lifeless! Even the lovely goldy hair had dulled.

“Meggie, I don’t know whether I’ve done the wrong thing, but I’ve done it anyway, and I want you at least to listen to me before you say no.”

Meggie turned from the rainbows, smiling. “You sound so solemn, Anne! What is it I must listen to?”

“Luddie and I are worried about you. You haven’t picked up properly since Justine was born, and now The Wet’s here you’re looking even worse. You’re not eating and you’re losing weight. I’ve never thought the climate here agreed with you, but as long as nothing happened to drag you down you managed to cope with it. Now we think you’re sick, and unless something’s done you’re going to get really ill.”

She drew a breath. “So a couple of weeks ago I wrote to a friend of mine in the tourist bureau, and booked you a holiday. And don’t start protesting about the expense; it won’t dent Luke’s resources or ours. The Archbishop sent us a very big check for you, and your brother sent us another one for you and the baby—I think he was hinting go home for a while—from everyone on Drogheda. And after we talked it over, Luddie and I decided the best thing we could do was spend some of it on a holiday for you. I don’t think going home to Drogheda is the right sort of holiday, though. What Luddie and I feel you need most is a thinking time. No Justine, no us, no Luke, no Drogheda. Have you ever been on your own, Meggie? It’s time you were. So we’ve booked you a cottage on Matlock Island for two months, from the beginning of January to the beginning of March. Luddie and I will look after Justine. You know she won’t come to any harm, but if we’re the slightest bit worried about her, you have our word we’ll notify you right away, and the island’s on the phone so it wouldn’t take long to fetch you back.”

The rainbows had gone, so had the sun; it was getting ready to rain again.

“Anne, if it hadn’t been for you and Luddie these past three years, I would have gone mad. You know that. Sometimes in the night I wake up wondering what would have happened to me had Luke put me with people less kind. You’ve cared for me more than Luke has.”

“Twaddle! If Luke had put you with unsympathetic people you would have gone back to Drogheda, and who knows? Maybe that might have been the best course.”

“No. It hasn’t been pleasant, this thing with Luke, but it was far better for me to stay and work it out.”

The rain was beginning to inch its way across the dimming cane blotting out everything behind its edge, like a grey cleaver.

“You’re right, I’m not well,” Meggie said. “I haven’t been well since Justine was conceived. I’ve tried to pull myself up, but I suppose one reaches a point where there isn’t the energy to do it. Oh, Anne, I’m so tired and discouraged! I’m not even a good mother to Justine, and I owe her that. I’m the one caused her to be; she didn’t ask for it. But mostly I’m discouraged because Luke won’t even give me a chance to make him happy. He won’t live with me or let me make a home for him; he doesn’t want our children. I don’t love him—I never did love him the way a woman ought to love the man she marries, and maybe he sensed it from the word go. Maybe if I had loved him, he would have acted differently. So how can I blame him? I’ve only myself to blame, I think.”

“It’s the Archbishop you love, isn’t it?”

“Oh, ever since I was a little girl! I was hard on him when he came. Poor Ralph! I had no right to say what I did to him, because he never encouraged me, you know. I hope he’s had time to understand that I was in pain, worn out, and terribly unhappy. All I could think was it ought by rights to be his child and it never would be, never could be. It isn’t fair! Protestant clergy can marry, why can’t Catholic? And don’t try to tell me ministers don’t care for their flocks the way priests do, because I won’t believe you. I’ve met heartless priests and wonderful ministers. But because of the celibacy of priests I’ve had to go away from Ralph, make my home and my life with someone else, have someone else’s baby. And do you know something, Anne? That’s as disgusting a sin as Ralph breaking his vows, or more so. I resent the Church’s implication that my loving Ralph or his loving me is wrong!”

“Go away for a while, Meggie. Rest and eat and sleep and stop fretting. Then maybe when you come back you can somehow persuade Luke to buy that station instead of talking about it. I know you don’t love him, but I think if he gave you half a chance you might be happy with him.”

The grey eyes were the same color as the rain falling in sheets all around the house; their voices had risen to shouting pitch to be audible above the incredible din on the iron roof.

“But that’s just it, Anne! When Luke and I went up to Atherton I realized at last that he’ll never leave the sugar while he’s got the strength to cut it. He loves the life, he really does. He loves being with men as strong and independent as he is himself; he loves roaming from one place to the other. He’s always been a wanderer, now I come to think of it. As for needing a woman for pleasure if nothing else, he’s too exhausted by the cane. And how can I put it? Luke is the kind of man who quite genuinely doesn’t care if he eats his food off a packing crate and sleeps on the floor. Don’t you see? One can’t appeal to him as to one who likes nice things, because he doesn’t. Sometimes I think he despises nice things, pretty things. They’re soft, they might make him soft. I have absolutely no enticements powerful enough to sway him from his present way of life.”

She glanced up impatiently at the veranda roof, as if tired of shouting. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to take the loneliness of having no home for the next ten or fifteen years, Anne, or however long it’s going to take Luke to wear himself out. It’s lovely here with you; I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful. But I want a home! I want Justine to have brothers and sisters, I want to dust my own furniture, I want to make curtains for my own windows, cook on my own stove for my own man. Oh, Anne! I’m just an ordinary sort of a woman; I’m not ambitious or intelligent or well educated, you know that. All I want is a husband, children, my own home. And a bit of love from someone!”

Anne got out her handkerchief, wiped her eyes and tried to laugh. “What a soppy pair we are! But I do understand, Meggie, really I do. I’ve been married to Luddie for ten years, the only truly happy ones of my life. I had infantile paralysis when I was five years old, and it left me like this. I was convinced no one would ever look at me. Nor did they, God knows. When I met Luddie I was thirty years old, teaching for a living. He was ten years younger than me, so I couldn’t take him seriously when he said he loved me and wanted to marry me. How terrible, Meggie, to ruin a very young man’s life! For five years I treated him to the worst display of downright nastiness you could imagine, but he always came back for more. So I married him, and I’ve been happy. Luddie says he is, but I’m not sure. He’s had to give up a lot, including children, and he looks older than I do these days, poor chap.”

“It’s the life, Anne, and the climate.”

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun; the sun came out, the rainbows waxed to full glory in the steamy sky, Mount Bartle Frere loomed lilac out of the scudding clouds.

Meggie spoke again. “I’ll go. I’m very grateful to you for thinking of it; it’s probably what I need. But are you sure Justine won’t be too much trouble?”

“Lord, no! Luddie’s got it all worked out. Anna Maria, who used to work for me before you came, has a younger sister, Annunziata, who wants to go nursing in Townsville. But she won’t be sixteen until March, and she finishes school in a few days. So while you’re away she’s going to come here. She’s an expert foster mother, too. There are hordes of babies in the Tesoriero clan.’

“Matlock Island. Where is it?”

“Just near Whitsunday Passage on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s very quiet and private, mostly a honeymoon resort, I suppose. You know the sort of thing—cottages instead of a central hotel. You won’t have to go to dinner in a crowded dining room, or be civil to a whole heap of people you’d rather not talk to at all. And at this time of year it’s just about deserted, because of the danger of summer cyclones. The Wet isn’t a problem, but no one ever seems to want to go to the Reef in summer. Probably because most of the people who go to the Reef come from Sydney or Melbourne, and summer down there is lovely without going away. In June and July and August the southerners have it booked out for three years ahead.”

11

Luke bought Meggie a diamond engagement ring, modest but quite pretty, its twin quarter-carat stones set in a pair of platinum hearts. The banns were called for noon on Saturday, August 25th, in the Holy Cross Church. This would be followed by a family dinner at the Hotel Imperial, to which Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat were naturally invited, though Jims and Patsy had been left in Sydney after Meggie said firmly that she couldn’t see the point in bringing them six hundred miles to witness a ceremony they didn’t really understand. She had received their letters of congratulations; Jims’s long, rambling and childlike, Patsy’s consisting of three words, “Lots of luck.” They knew Luke, of course, having ridden the Drogheda paddocks with him during their vacations.

Mrs. Smith was grieved at Meggie’s insistence on as small an affair as possible; she had hoped to see the only girl married on Drogheda with flags flying and cymbals clashing, days of celebration. But Meggie was so against a fuss she even refused to wear bridal regalia; she would be married in a day dress and an ordinary hat, which could double afterwards as her traveling outfit.

“Darling, I’ve decided where to take you for our honeymoon,” Luke said, slipping into a chair opposite hers the Sunday after they had made their wedding plans.

“Where?”

“North Queensland. While you were at the dressmaker I got talking to some chaps in the Imperial bar, and they were telling me there’s money to be made up in cane country, if a man’s strong and not afraid of hard work.”

“But Luke, you already have a good job here!”

“A man doesn’t feel right, battening on his in-laws. I want to get us the money to buy a place out in Western Queensland, and I want it before I’m too old to work it. A man with no education finds it hard to get high-paying work in this Depression, but there’s a shortage of men in North Queensland, and the money’s at least ten times what I earn as a stockman on Drogheda.”

“Doing what?”

“Cutting sugar cane.”

“Cutting sugar cane? That’s coolie labor”

“No, you’re wrong. Coolies aren’t big enough to do it as well as the white cutters, and besides, you know as well as I do that Australian law forbids the importation of black or yellow men to do slave labor or work for wages lower than a white man’s, take the bread out of a white Australian’s mouth. There’s, a shortage of cutters and the money’s terrific. Not too many blokes are big enough or strong enough to cut cane. But I am. It won’t beat me!”

“Does this mean you’re thinking of making our home in North Queensland, Luke?”

“Yes.”

She stared past his shoulder through the great bank of windows at Drogheda: the ghost gums, the Home Paddock, the stretch of trees beyond. Not to live on Drogheda! To be somewhere Bishop Ralph could never find her, to live without ever seeing him again, to cleave to this stranger sitting facing her so irrevocably there could be no going back…. The grey eyes rested on Luke’s vivid, impatient face and grew more beautiful, but unmistakably sadder. He sensed it only; she had no tears there, her lids didn’t droop, or the corners of her mouth. But he wasn’t concerned with whatever sorrows Meggie owned, for he had no intention of letting her become so important to him she caused him worry on her behalf. Admittedly she was something of a bonus to a man who had tried to marry Dot MacPherson of Bingelly, but her physical desirability and tractable nature only increased Luke’s guard over his own heart. No woman, even one as sweet and beautiful as Meggie Cleary, was ever going to gain sufficient power over him to tell him what to do.

So, remaining true to himself, he plunged straight into the main thing on his mind. There were times when guile was necessary, but in this matter it wouldn’t serve him as well as bluntness.

“Meghann, I’m an old-fashioned man,” he said.

She stared at him, puzzled. “Are you?” she asked, her tone implying: Does it matter?

“Yes,” he said. “I believe that when a man and woman marry, all the woman’s property should become the man’s. The way a dowry did in the old days. I know you’ve got a bit of money, and I’m telling you now that when we marry you’re to sign it over to me. It’s only fair you know what’s in my mind while you’re still single, and able to decide whether you want to do it.”

It had never occurred to Meggie that she would retain her money; she had simply assumed when she married it would become Luke’s, not hers. All save the most educated and sophisticated Australian women were reared to think themselves more or less the chattels of their men, and this was especially true of Meggie. Daddy had always ruled Fee and his children, and since his death Fee had deferred to Bob as his successor. The man owned the money, the house, his wife and his children. Meggie had never questioned his right to do so.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know signing anything was necessary, Luke. I thought that what was mine automatically became yours when we married.”

“It used to be like that, but those stupid drongos in Canberra stopped it when they gave women the vote. I want everything to be fair and square between us, Meghann, so I’m telling you now how things are going to be.”

She laughed, “It’s all right, Luke, I don’t mind.”

She took it like a good old-fashioned wife; Dot wouldn’t have given in so readily. “How much have you got?” he asked.

“At the moment, fourteen thousand pounds. Every year I get two thousand more.”

He whistled. “Fourteen thousand pounds! Phew! That’s a lot of money, Meghann. Better to have me look after it for you. We can see the bank manager next week, and remind me to make sure everything coming in in the future gets put in my name, too. I’m not going to touch a penny of it, you know that. It’s to buy our station later on. For the next few years we’re both going to work hard, and save every penny we earn. All right?”

She nodded. “Yes, Luke.”

A simple oversight on Luke’s part nearly scotched the wedding in midplan. He was not a Catholic. When Father Watty found out he threw up his hands in horror.

“Dear Lord, Luke, why didn’t you tell me earlier? Indeed and to goodness, it will take all of our energies to have you converted and baptized before the wedding!”

Luke stared at Father Watty, astonished. “Who said anything about converting, Father? I’m quite happy as I am being nothing, but if it worries you, write me down as a Calathumpian or a Holy Roller or whatever you like. But write me down a Catholic you will not.”

In vain they pleaded; Luke refused to entertain the idea of conversion for a moment. “I’ve got nothing against Catholicism or Eire, and I think the Catholics in Ulster are hard done by. But I’m Orange, and I’m not a turncoat. If I was a Catholic and you wanted me to convert to Methodism, I’d react the same. It’s being a turncoat I object to, not being a Catholic. So you’ll have to do without me in the flock, Father, and that’s that.”

“Then you can’t get married!”

“Why on earth not? If you don’t want to marry us, I can’t see why the Reverend up at the Church of England will object, or Harry Gough the J.P.”

Fee smiled sourly, remembering her contretemps with Paddy and a priest; she had won that encounter.

“But, Luke, I have to be married in church!” Meggie protested fearfully. “If I’m not, I’ll be living in sin!”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, living in sin is a lot better than turning my coat inside out,” said Luke, who was sometimes a curious contradiction; much as he wanted Meggie’s money, a blind streak of stubbornness in him wouldn’t let him back down.

“Oh, stop all this silliness!” said Fee, not to Luke but to the priest. “Do what Paddy and I did and have an end to argument! Father Thomas can marry you in the presbytery if he doesn’t want to soil his church!”

Everyone stared at her, amazed, but it did the trick; Father Watkin gave in and agreed to marry them in the presbytery, though he refused to bless the ring.

Partial Church sanction left Meggie feeling she was sinning, but not badly enough to go to Hell, and ancient Annie the presbytery housekeeper did her best to make Father Watty’s study as churchlike as possible, with great vases of flowers and many brass candlesticks. But it was an uncomfortable ceremony, the very displeased priest making everyone feel he only went through with it to save himself the embarrassment of a secular wedding elsewhere. No Nuptial Mass, no blessings.

However, it was done. Meggie was Mrs. Luke O’Neill, on her way to North Queensland and a honeymoon somewhat delayed by the time it would take getting there. Luke refused to spend that Saturday night at the Imperial, for the branch-line train to Goondiwindi left only once a week, on Saturday night, to connect with the Goondiwindi—Brisbane mail train on Sunday. This would bring them to Bris on Monday in time to catch the Cairns express.

The Goondiwindi train was crowded. They had no privacy and sat up all night because it carried no sleeping cars. Hour after hour it trundled its erratic, grumpy way northeast, stopping interminably every time the engine driver felt like brewing a billy of tea for himself, or to let a mob of sheep wander along the rails, or to have a yarn with a drover.

“I wonder why they pronounce Goondiwindi Gundiwindi if they don’t want to spell it that way?” Meggie asked idly as they waited in the only place open in Goondiwindi on a Sunday, the awful institutional-green station waiting room with its hard black wooden benches. Poor Meggie, she was nervous and ill at ease.

“How do I know?” sighed Luke, who didn’t feel like talking and was starving into the bargain. Since it was Sunday they couldn’t even get a cup of tea; not until the Monday-morning breakfast stop on the Brisbane mail did they get an opportunity to fill their empty stomachs and slake their thirst. Then Brisbane, into South Bris station, the trek across the city to Roma Street Station and the Cairns train. Here Meggie discovered Luke had booked them two second-class upright seats.

“Luke, we’re not short of money!” she said, tired and exasperated. “If you forgot to go to the bank, I’ve got a hundred pounds Bob gave me here in my purse. Why didn’t you get us a first-class sleeping compartment?”

He stared down at her, astounded. “But it’s only three nights and three days to Dungloe! Why spend money on a sleeper when we’re both young, healthy and strong? Sitting up on a train for a while won’t kill you, Meghann! It’s about time you realized you’ve married a plain old workingman, not a bloody squatter!”

So Meggie slumped in the window seat Luke seized for her and rested her trembling chin on her hand to look out the window so Luke wouldn’t notice her tears. He had spoken to her as one speaks to an irresponsible child, and she was beginning to wonder if indeed this was how he regarded her. Rebellion began to stir, but it was very small and her fierce pride forbade the indignity of quarreling. Instead she told herself she was this man’s wife, but it was such a new thing he wasn’t used to it. Give him time. They would live together, she would cook his meals, mend his clothes, look after him, have his babies, be a good wife to him. Look how much Daddy had appreciated Mum, how much he had adored her. Give Luke time.

They were going to a town called Dungloe, only fifty miles short of Cairns, which was the far northern terminus of the line which ran all the way along the Queensland coast. Over a thousand miles of narrow three-foot-six-gauge rail, rocking and pitching back and forth, every seat in the compartment occupied, no chance to lie down or stretch out. Though it was far more densely settled countryside than Gilly, and far more colorful, she couldn’t summon up interest in it.

Her head ached, she could keep no food down and the heat was much, much worse than anything Gilly had ever cooked up. The lovely pink silk wedding dress was filthy from soot blowing in the windows, her skin was clammy with a sweat which wouldn’t evaporate, and what was more galling than any of her physical discomforts, she was close to hating Luke. Apparently not in the least tired or out of sorts because of the journey, he sat at his ease yarning with two men going to Cardwell. The only times he glanced in her direction he also got up, leaned across her so carelessly she shrank, and flung a rolled-up newspaper out the window to some event-hungry gang of tattered men beside the line with steel hammers in their hands, calling:

“Paip! Paip!”

“Fettlers looking after the rails,” he explained as he sat down again the first time it happened.

And he seemed to assume she was quite as happy and comfortable as he was, that the coastal plain flying by was fascinating her. While she sat staring at it and not seeing it, hating it before she had so much as set foot on it.

At Cardwell the two men got off, and Luke went to the fish-and-chip shop across the road from the station to bring back a newspaper-wrapped bundle.

“They say Cardwell fish has to be tasted to be believed, Meghann love. The best fish in the world. Here, try some. It’s your first bit of genuine Bananaland food. I tell you, there’s no place like Queensland.”

Meggie glanced at the greasy pieces of batter-dipped fish, put her handkerchief to her mouth and bolted for the toilet. He was waiting in the corridor when she came out some time later, white and shaking.

“What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?”

“I haven’t felt well since we left Goondiwindi.”

“Good Lord! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why didn’t you notice?”

“You looked all right to me.”

“How far is it now?” she asked, giving up.

“Three to six hours, give or take a bit. They don’t run to timetable up here too much. There’s plenty of room now those blokes are gone; lie down and put your tootsies in my lap.”

“Oh, don’t baby-talk me!” she snapped tartly. “It would have been a lot better if they’d got off two days ago in Bundaberg!”

“Come on now, Meghann, be a good sport! Nearly there. Only Tully and Innisfail, then Dungloe.”

It was late afternoon when they stepped off the train, Meggie clinging desperately to Luke’s arm, too proud to admit she wasn’t able to walk properly. He asked the stationmaster for the name of a workingmen’s hotel, picked up their cases and walked out onto the street, Meggie behind him weaving drunkenly.

“Only to the end of the block on the other side of the street,” he comforted. “The white two-storied joint.”

Though their room was small and filled to overflowing with great pieces of Victorian furniture, it looked like heaven to Meggie, collapsing on the edge of the double bed.

“Lie down for a while before dinner, love. I’m going out to find my landmarks,” he said, sauntering from the room looking as fresh and rested as he had on their wedding morning. That had been Saturday, and this was late Thursday afternoon; five days sitting up in crowded trains, choked by cigarette smoke and soot.

The bed was rocking monotonously in time to the clickety-click of steel wheels passing over rail joins, but Meggie turned her head into the pillow gratefully, and slept, and slept.

Someone had taken off her shoes and stockings, and covered her with a sheet; Meggie stirred, opened her eyes and looked around. Luke was sitting on the window ledge with one knee drawn up, smoking. Her movement made him turn to look at her, and he smiled.

“A nice bride you are! Here I am looking forward to my honeymoon and my wife conks out for nearly two days! I was a bit worried when I couldn’t wake you up, but the publican says it hits women like that, the trip up in the train and the humidity. He said just let you sleep it off. How do you feel now?”

She sat up stiffly, stretched her arms and yawned, “I feel much better, thank you. Oh, Luke! I know I’m young and strong, but I’m a woman! I can’t take the sort of physical punishment you can.”

He came to sit on the edge of the bed, rubbing her arm in a rather charming gesture of contrition. “I’m sorry, Meghann, I really am. I didn’t think of your being a woman. Not used to having a wife with me, that’s all. Are you hungry, darling?”

“Starved. Do you realize it’s almost a week since I’ve eaten?”

“Then why don’t you have a bath, put on a clean dress and come outside to look at Dungloe?”

There was a Chinese café next door to the hotel, where Luke led Meggie for her first-ever taste of Oriental food. She was so hungry anything would have tasted good, but this was superb. Nor did she care if it was made of rats’ tails and sharks’ fins and fowls’ bowels, as rumor had it in Gillanbone, which only possessed a café run by Greeks who served steak and chips. Luke had brown-bagged two quart bottles of beer from the hotel and insisted she drink a glass in spite of her dislike for beer.

“Go easy on the water at first,” he advised. “Beer won’t give you the trots.”

Then he took her arm and walked her around Dungloe proudly, as if he owned it. But then, Luke was born a Queenslander. What a place Dungloe was! It had a look and a character far removed from western towns. In size it was probably the same as Gilly, but instead of rambling forever down one main street. Dungloe was built in ordered square blocks, and all its shops and houses were painted white, not brown. Windows were vertical wooden transoms, presumably to catch the breeze, and wherever possible roofs had been dispensed with, like the movie theater, which had a screen, transomed walls and rows of ship’s canvas desk chairs, but no roof at all.

All around the edge of the town encroached a genuine jungle. Vines and creepers sprawled everywhere—up posts, across roofs, along walls. Trees sprouted casually in the middle of the road, or had houses built around them, or perhaps had grown up through the houses. It was impossible to tell which had come first, trees or human habitations, for the overwhelming impression was one of uncontrolled, hectic growth of vegetation. Coconut palms taller and straighter than the Drogheda ghost gums waved fronds against a deep, swimming blue sky; everywhere Meggie looked was a blaze of color. No brown-and-grey land, this. Every kind of tree seemed to be in flower—purple, orange, scarlet, pink, blue, white.

There were many Chinese in black silk trousers, tiny black-and-white shoes with white socks, white Mandarin-collared shirts, pigtails down their backs. Males and females looked so alike Meggie found it difficult to tell which were which. Almost the entire commerce of the town seemed to be in the hands of Chinese; a large department store, far more opulent than anything Gilly possessed, bore a Chinese name: AH WONG’S, said the sign.

All the houses were built on top of very high piles, like the old head stockman’s residence on Drogheda. This was to achieve maximum air circulation, Luke explained, and keep the termites from causing them to fall down a year after they were built. At the top of each pile was a tin plate with turned-down edges; termites couldn’t bend their bodies in the middle and thus couldn’t crawl over the tin parapet into the wood of the house itself. Of course they feasted on the piles, but when a pile rotted it was removed and replaced by a new one. Much easier and less expensive than putting up a new house. Most of the gardens seemed to be jungle, bamboo and palms, as if the inhabitants had given up trying to keep floral order.

The men and women shocked her. To go for dinner and a walk with Luke she had dressed as custom demanded in heeled shoes, silk stockings, satin slip, floating silk frock with belt and elbow sleeves. On her head was a big straw hat, on her hands were gloves. And what irritated her the most was an uncomfortable feeling from the way people stared that she was the one improperly dressed!

The men were bare-footed, bare-legged and mostly bare-chested, wearing nothing but drab khaki shorts; the few who covered their chests did so with athletic singlets, not shirts. The women were worse. A few wore skimpy cotton dresses clearly minus anything in the way of underwear, no stockings, sloppy sandals. But the majority wore short shorts, went bare-footed and shielded their breasts with indecent little sleeveless vests. Dungloe was a civilized town, not a beach. But here were its native white inhabitants strolling around in brazen undress; the Chinese were better clad.

There were bicycles everywhere, hundreds of them; a few cars, no horses at all. Yes, very different from Gilly. And it was hot, hot, hot. They passed a thermometer which incredibly said a mere ninety degrees; in Gilly at 115 degrees it seemed cooler than this. Meggie felt as if she moved through solid air which her body had to cut like wet, steamy butter, as if when she breathed her lungs filled with water.

“Luke, I can’t bear it! Please, can we go back?” she gasped after less than a mile.

“If you want. You’re feeling the humidity. It rarely gets below ninety percent, winter or summer, and the temperature rarely gets below eighty-five or above ninety-five. There’s not much of a seasonal variation, but in summer the monsoons send the humidity up to a hundred percent all the flaming time.”

“Summer rain, not winter?”

“All year round. The monsoons always come, and when they’re not blowing, the southeast trades are. They carry a lot of rain, too. Dungloe has an annual rainfall of between one and three hundred inches.”

Three hundred inches of rain a year! Poor Gilly ecstatic if it got a princely fifteen, while here as much as three hundred fell, two thousand miles from Gilly.

“Doesn’t it cool off at night?” Meggie asked as they reached the hotel; hot nights in Gilly were bearable compared to this steam bath.

“Not very much. You’ll get used to it.” He opened the door to their room and stood back for her to enter. “I’m going down to the bar for a beer, but I’ll be back in half an hour. That ought to give you enough time.”

Her eyes flew to his face, startled. “Yes, Luke.”

Dungloe was seventeen degrees south of the equator, so night fell like a thunderclap; one minute it seemed the sun was scarcely setting, and the next minute pitch-black darkness spread itself thick and warm like treacle. When Luke came back Meggie had switched off the light and was lying in the bed with the sheet pulled up to her chin. Laughing, he reached out and tugged it off her, threw it on the floor.

“It’s hot enough, love! We won’t need a sheet.”

She could hear him walking about, see his faint shadow shedding its clothes. “I put your pajamas on the dressing table,” she whispered.

“Pajamas? In weather like this? I know in Gilly they’d have a stroke at the thought of a man not wearing pajamas, but this is Dungloe! Are you really wearing a nightie?”

“Yes.”

“Then take it off. The bloody thing will only be a nuisance anyway.”

Fumbling, Meggie managed to wriggle out of the lawn nightgown Mrs. Smith had embroidered so lovingly for her wedding night, thankful that it was too dark for him to see her. He was right; it was much cooler lying bare and letting the breeze from the wideopen transoms play over her thinly. But the thought of another hot body in the bed with her was depressing.

The springs creaked; Meggie felt damp skin touch her arm and jumped. He turned on his side, pulled her into his arms and kissed her. At first she lay passively, trying not to think of that wide-open mouth and its probing, indecent tongue, but then she began to struggle to be free, not wanting to be close in the heat, not wanting to be kissed, not wanting Luke. It wasn’t a bit like that night in the Rolls coming back from Rudna Hunish. She couldn’t seem to feel anything in him which thought of her, and some part of him was pushing insistently at her thighs while one hand, its nails squarely sharp, dug into her buttocks. Her fear blossomed into terror, she was overwhelmed in more than a physical way by his strength and determination, his lack of awareness of her. Suddenly he let her go, sat up and seemed to fumble with himself, snapping and pulling at something.

“Better be safe,” he gasped. “Lie on your back, it’s time. No, not like that! Open your legs, for God’s sake! Don’t you know anything?”

No, no, Luke, I don’t! she wanted to cry. This is horrible, obscene; whatever it is you’re doing to me can’t possibly be permitted by the laws of Church or men! He actually lay down on top of her, lifted his hips and poked at her with one hand, the other so firmly in her hair she didn’t dare move. Twitching and jumping at the alien thing between her legs, she tried to do as he wanted, spread her legs wider, but he was much broader than she was, and her groin muscles went into crampy spasm from the weight of him and the unaccustomed posture. Even through the darkening mists of fright and exhaustion she could sense the gathering of some mighty power; as he entered her a long high scream left her lips.

“Shut up!” he groaned, took his hand out of her hair and clamped it defensively over her mouth. “What do you want to do, make everyone in this bloody pub think I’m murdering you? Lie still and it won’t hurt any more than it has to! Lie still, lie still!”

She fought like one possessed to be rid of that ghastly, painful thing, but his weight pinned her down and his hand deadened her cries, the agony went on and on. Utterly dry because he hadn’t roused her, the even drier condom scraped and rasped her tissues as he worked himself in and out, faster and faster, the breath beginning to hiss between his teeth; then some change stilled him, made him shudder, swallow hard. The pain dulled to raw soreness and he mercifully rolled off her to lie on his back, gasping.

“It’ll be better for you the next time,” he managed to say. “The first time always hurts the woman.”

Then why didn’t you have the decency to tell me that beforehand? she wanted to snarl, but she hadn’t the energy to utter the words, she was too busy wanting to die. Not only because of the pain, but also from the discovery that she had possessed no identity for him, only been an instrument.

The second time hurt just as much, and the third; exasperated, expecting her discomfort (for so he deemed it) to disappear magically after the first time and thus not understanding why she continued to fight and cry out, Luke grew angry, turned his back on her and went to sleep. The tears slipped sideways from Meggie’s eyes into her hair; she lay on her back wishing for death, or else for her old life on Drogheda.

Was that what Father Ralph had meant years ago, when he had told her of the hidden passageway to do with having children? A nice way to find out what he meant. No wonder he had preferred not to explain it more clearly himself. Yet Luke had liked the activity well enough to do it three times in quick succession. Obviously it didn’t hurt him. And for that she found herself hating him, hating it.

Exhausted, so sore moving was agony, Meggie inched herself over onto her side with her back to Luke, and wept into the pillow. Sleep eluded her, though Luke slept so soundly her small timid movements never caused so much as a change in the pattern of his breathing. He was an economical sleeper and a quiet one, he neither snored nor flopped about, and she thought while waiting for the late dawn that if it had just been a matter of lying down together, she might have found him nice to be with. And the dawn came as quickly and joylessly as darkness had; it seemed strange not to hear roosters crowing, the other sounds of a rousing Drogheda with its sheep and horses and pigs and dogs.

Luke woke, and rolled over, she felt him kiss her on the shoulder and was so tired, so homesick that she forgot modesty, didn’t care about covering herself.

“Come on, Meghann, let’s have a look at you,” he commanded, his hand on her hip. “Turn over, like a good little girl.”

Nothing mattered this morning; Meggie turned over, wincing, and lay looking up at him dully. “I don’t like Meghann,” she said, the only form of protest she could manage. “I do wish you’d call me Meggie.”

“I don’t like Meggie. But if you really dislike Meghann so much, I’ll call you Meg.” His gaze roved her body dreamily. “What a nice shape you’ve got.” He touched one breast, pink nipple flat and unaroused. “Especially these.” Bunching the pillows into a heap, he lay back on them and smiled “Come on, Meg, kiss me. It’s your turn to make love to me, and maybe you’ll like that better, eh?”

I never want to kiss you again as long as I live, she thought, looking at the long, heavily muscled body, the mat of dark hair on the chest diving down the belly in a thin line and then flaring into a bush, out of which grew the deceptively small and innocent shoot which could cause so much pain. How hairy his legs were! Meggie had grown up with men who never removed a layer of their clothes in the presence of women, but open-necked shirts showed hairy chests in hot weather. They were all fair men, and not offensive to her; this dark man was alien, repulsive. Ralph had a head of hair just as dark, but well she remembered that smooth, hairless brown chest.

“Do as you’re told, Meg! Kiss me.”

Leaning over, she kissed him; he cupped her breasts in his palms and made her go on kissing him, took one of her hands and pushed it down to his groin. Startled, she took her unwilling mouth away from his to look at what lay under her hand, changing and growing.

“Oh, please, Luke, not again!” she cried. “Please, not again! Please, please!”

The blue eyes scanned her speculatively. “Hurts that much? All right, we’ll do something different, but for God’s sake try to be enthusiastic!”

Pulling her on top of him, he pushed her legs, apart, lifted her shoulders and attached himself to her breast, as he had done in the car the night she committed herself to marrying him. There only in body, Meggie endured it; at least he didn’t put himself inside her, so it didn’t hurt any more than simply moving did. What strange creatures men were, to go at this as if it was the most pleasurable thing in the world. It was disgusting, a mockery of love. Had it not been for her hope that it would culminate in a baby, Meggie would have refused flatly to have anything more to do with it.

“I’ve got you a job,” Luke said over breakfast in the hotel dining room.

“What? Before I’ve had a chance to make our home nice, Luke? Before we’ve even got a home?”

“There’s no point in our renting a house, Meg. I’m going to cut cane; it’s all arranged. The best gang of cutters in Queensland is a gang of Swedes, Poles and Irish led by a bloke called Arne Swenson, and while you were sleeping off the journey I went to see him. He’s a man short and he’s willing to give me a trial. That means I’ll be living in barracks with them. We cut six days a week, sunrise to sunset. Not only that, but we move around up and down the coast, wherever the next job takes us. How much I earn depends on how much sugar I cut, and if I’m good enough to cut with Arne’s gang I’ll be pulling in more than twenty quid a week. Twenty quid a week! Can you imagine that?”

“Are you trying to tell me we won’t be living togther, Luke?”

“We can’t, Meg! The men won’t have a woman in the barracks, and what’s the use of your living alone in a house? You may as well work, too; it’s all money toward our station.”

“But where will I live? What sort of work can I do? There’s no stock to drove up here.”

“No, more’s the pity. That’s why I’ve got you a live-in job, Meg. You’ll get free board, I won’t have the expense of keeping you. You’re going to work as a housemaid on Himmelhoch, Ludwig Mueller’s place. He’s the biggest cane cocky in the district and his wife’s an invalid, can’t manage the house on her own. I’ll take you there tomorrow morning.”

“But when will I see you, Luke?”

“On Sundays. Luddie understands you’re married; he doesn’t mind if you disappear on Sundays.”

“Well! You’ve certainly arranged things to your satisfaction, haven’t you?”

“I reckon. Oh, Meg, we’re going to be rich! We’ll work hard and save every penny, and it won’t be long before we can buy ourselves the best station in Western Queensland. There’s the fourteen thousand I’ve got in the Gilly bank, the two thousand a year more coming in there, and the thirteen hundred or more a year we can earn between us. It won’t be long, love, I promise. Grin and bear it for me, eh? Why be content with a rented house when the harder we work now means the sooner you’ll be looking around your own kitchen?”

“If it’s what you want.” She looked down at her purse. “Luke, did you take my hundred pounds?”

“I put it in the bank. You can’t carry money like that around, Meg.”

“But you took every bit of it! I don’t have a penny! What about spending money?”

“Why on earth do you want spending money? You’ll be out at Himmelhoch in the morning, and you can’t spend anything there. I’ll take care of the hotel bill. It’s time you realized you’ve married a workingman, Meg, that you’re not the pampered squatter’s daughter with money to burn. Mueller will pay your wages straight into my bank account, where they’ll stay along with mine. I’m not spending the money on myself, Meg, you know that. Neither of us is going to touch it, because it’s for our future, our station.”

“Yes, I understand. You’re very sensible, Luke. But what if I should have a baby?”

For a moment he was tempted to tell her the truth, that there would be no baby until the station was a reality, but something in her face made him decide not to.

“Well, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, eh? I’d rather we didn’t have one until we’ve got our station, so let’s just hope we don’t.”

No home, no money, no babies. No husband, for that matter. Meggie started to laugh. Luke joined her, his teacup lifted in a toast.

“Here’s to French letters,” he said.

In the morning they went out to Himmelhoch on the local bus, an old Ford with no glass in its windows and room for twelve people. Meggie was feeling better, for Luke had left her alone when she offered him a breast, and seemed to like it quite as well as that other awful thing. Much and all as she wanted babies, her courage had failed her. The first Sunday that she wasn’t sore at all, she told herself, she would be willing to try again. Perhaps there was a baby already on the way, and she needn’t bother with it ever again unless she wanted more. Eyes brighter, she looked around her with interest as the bus chugged out along the red dirt road.

It was breath-taking country, so different from Gilly; she had to admit there was a grandeur and beauty here Gilly quite lacked. Easy to see there was never a shortage of water. The soil was the color of freshly spilled blood, brilliant scarlet, and the cane in the fields not fallow was a perfect contrast to the soil: long bright-green blades waving fifteen or twenty feet above claret-colored stalks as thick as Luke’s arm. Nowhere in the world, raved Luke, did cane grow as tall or as rich in sugar; its yield was the highest known. That bright-red soil was over a hundred feet deep, and so stuffed with exactly the right nutrients the cane couldn’t help but be perfect, especially considering the rainfall. And nowhere else in the world was it cut by white men, at the white man’s driving, money-hungry pace.

“You look good on a soapbox, Luke,” said Meggie ironically.

He glanced sideways at her, suspiciously, but refrained from comment because the bus had stopped on the side of the road to let them off.

Himmelhoch was a large white house on top of a hill, surrounded by coconut palms, banana palms and beautiful smaller palms whose leaves splayed outward in great fans like the tails of peacocks. A grove of bamboo forty feet high cut the house off from the worst of the northwest monsoonal winds; even with its hill elevation it was still mounted on top of fifteen-foot piles.

Luke carried her case; Meggie toiled up the red road beside him, gasping, still in correct shoes and stockings, her hat wilting around her face. The cane baron himself wasn’t in, but his wife came onto the veranda as they mounted the steps, balancing herself between two sticks. She was smiling; looking at her dear kind face, Meggie felt better at once.

“Come in, come in!” she said in a strong Australian accent.

Expecting a German voice, Meggie was immeasurably cheered. Luke put her case down, shook hands when the lady took her right one off its stick, then pounded away down the steps in a hurry to catch the bus on its return journey. Arne Swenson was picking him up outside the pub at ten o’clock.

“What’s your first name, Mrs. O’Neill?”

“Meggie.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Mine is Anne, and I’d rather you called me Anne. It’s been so lonely up here since my girl left me a month ago, but it’s not easy to get good house help, so I’ve been battling on my own. There’s only Luddie and me to look after; we have no children. I hope you’re going to like living with us, Meggie.”

“I’m sure I will, Mrs. Mueller—Anne.”

“Let me show you to your room. Can you manage the case? I’m not much good at carrying things, I’m afraid.”

The room was austerely furnished, like the rest of the house, but it looked out on the only side of the house where the view was unimpeded by some sort of wind-break, and shared the same stretch of veranda as the living room, which seemed very bare to Meggie with its cane furniture and lack of fabric.

“It’s just too hot up here for velvet or chintz,” Anne explained. “We live with wicker, and as little on ourselves as decency allows. I’ll have to educate you, or you’ll die. You’re hopelessly overclothed.”

She herself was in a sleeveless, low-necked vest and a pair of short shorts, out of which her poor twisted legs poked doddering. In no time at all Meggie found herself similarly clad, loaned from Anne until Luke could be persuaded to buy her new clothes. It was humiliating to have to explain that she was allowed no money, but at least having to endure this attenuated her embarrassment over wearing so little.

“Well, you certainly decorate my shorts better than I do,” said Anne. She went on with her breezy lecture. “Luddie will bring you firewood; you’re not to cut your own or drag it up the steps. I wish we had electricity like the places closer in to Dunny, but the government is slower than a wet week. Maybe next year the line will reach as far as Himmelhoch, but until then it’s the awful old fuel stove, I’m afraid. But you wait, Meggie! The minute they give us power we’ll have an electric stove, electric lights and a refrigerator.”

“I’m used to doing without them.”

“Yes, but where you come from the heat is dry. This is far, far worse. I’m just frightened that your health will suffer. It often does in women who weren’t born and brought up here; something to do with the blood. We’re on the same latitude south as Bombay and Rangoon are north, you know; not fit country for man or beast unless born to it.” She smiled. “Oh, it’s nice having you already! You and I are going to have a wonderful time! Do you like reading? Luddie and I have a passion for it.”

Meggie’s face lit up. “Oh, yes!”

“Splendid! You’ll be too content to miss that big handsome husband of yours.”

Meggie didn’t answer. Miss Luke? Was he handsome? She thought that if she never saw him again she would be perfectly happy. Except that he was her husband, that the law said she had to make her life with him. She had gone into it with her eyes open; she had no one to blame save herself. And perhaps as the money came in and the station in Western Queensland became a reality, there would be time for Luke and her to live together, settle down, know each other, get along.

He wasn’t a bad man, or unlikable; it was just that he had been alone so long he didn’t know how to share himself with someone else. And he was a simple man, ruthlessly single of purpose, untormented. What he desired was a concrete thing, even if a dream; it was a positive reward which would surely come as the result of unremitting work, grinding sacrifice. For that one had to respect him. Not for a moment did she think he would use the money to give himself luxuries; he had meant what he said. It would stay in the bank.

The trouble was he didn’t have the time or the inclination to understand a woman, he didn’t seem to know a woman was different, needed things he didn’t need, as he needed things she didn’t. Well, it could be worse. He might have put her to work for someone far colder and less considerate than Anne Mueller. On top of this hill she wouldn’t come to any harm. But oh, it was so far from Drogheda!

That last thought came again after they finished touring the house, and stood together on the living room veranda looking out across Himmelhoch. The great fields of cane (one couldn’t call them paddocks, since they were small enough to encompass with the eyes) plumed lushly in the wind, a restlessly sparkling and polished-by-rain green, falling away in a long slope to the jungle-clad banks of a great river, wider by far than the Barwon. Beyond the river the cane lands rose again, squares of poisonous green interspersed with bloody fallow fields, until at the foot of a vast mountain the cultivation stopped, and the jungle took over. Behind the cone of mountain, farther away, other peaks reared and died purple into the distance. The sky was a richer, denser blue than Gilly skies, puffed with white billows of thick cloud, and the color of the whole was vivid, intense.

“That’s Mount Bartle Frere,” said Anne, pointing to the isolated peak. “Six thousand feet straight up out of a sea-level plain. They say it’s solid tin, but there’s no hope of mining it for the jungle.”

On the heavy, idle wind came a strong, sickening stench Meggie hadn’t stopped trying to get out of her nostrils since stepping off the train. Like decay, only not like decay; unbearably sweet, all-pervasive, a tangible presence which never seemed to diminish no matter how hard the breeze blew.

“What you can smell is molasses,” said Anne as she noticed Meggie’s flaring nose; she lit a tailor-made Ardath cigarette.

“It’s disgusting.”

“I know. That’s why I smoke. But to a certain extent you get used to it, though unlike most smells it never quite disappears. Day in and day out, the molasses is always there.”

“What are the buildings on the river with the black chimney?”

“That’s the mill. It processes the cane into raw sugar. What’s left over, the dry remnants of the cane minus its sugar content, is called bagasse. Both raw sugar and bagasse are sent south to Sydney for further refining. Out of raw sugar they get molasses, treacle, golden syrup, brown sugar, white sugar and liquid glucose. The bagasse is made into fibrous building board like Masonite. Nothing is wasted, absolutely nothing. That’s why even in this Depression growing cane is still a very profitable business.”

Arne Swenson was six feet two inches tall, exactly Luke’s height, and just as handsome. His bare body was coated a dark golden brown by perpetual exposure to the sun, his thatch of bright yellow hair curled all over his head; the fine Swedish features were so like Luke’s in type that it was easy to see how much Norse blood had percolated into the veins of the Scots and Irish.

Luke had abandoned his moleskins and white shirt in favor of shorts. With Arne he climbed into an ancient, wheezing model-T utility truck and headed for where the gang was cutting out by Goondi. The second-hand bicycle he had bought lay in the utility’s tray along with his case, and he was dying to begin work.

The other men had been cutting since dawn and didn’t lift their heads when Arne appeared from the direction of the barracks, Luke in tow. The cutting uniform consisted of shorts, boots with thick woolen socks, and canvas hats. Eyes narrowing, Luke stared at the toiling men, who were a peculiar sight. Coal-black dirt covered them from head to foot, with sweat making bright pink streaks down chests, arms, backs.

“Soot and muck from the cane,” Arne explained. “We have to burn it before we can cut it.”

He bent down to pick up two instruments, gave one to Luke and kept one. “This is a cane knife,” he said, hefting his. “With this you cut the cane. Very easy if you know how.” He grinned, proceeding to demonstrate and making it look far easier than it probably was.

Luke looked at the deadly thing he gripped, which was not at all like a West Indian machete. It widened into a large triangle instead of tapering to a point, and had a wicked hook like a rooster’s spur at one of the two blade ends.

“A machete is too small for North Queensland cane,” Arne said, finished his demonstration. “This is the right toy, you’ll find. Keep it sharp, and good luck.”

Off he went to his own section, leaving Luke standing undecided for a moment. Then, shrugging, he started work. Within minutes he understood why they left it to slaves and to races not sophisticated enough to know there were easier ways to make a living; like shearing, he thought with wry humor. Bend, hack, straighten, clutch the unwieldy topheavy bunch securely, slide its length through the hands, whack off the leaves, drop it in a tidy heap, go to the next cluster of stems, bend, hack, straighten, hack, add it to the heap….

The cane was alive with vermin: rats, bandicoots, cockroaches, toads, spiders, snakes, wasps, flies and bees. Everything that could bite viciously or sting unbearably was well represented. For that reason the cutters burned the cane first, preferring the filth of working charred crops to the depredations of green, living cane. Even so they were stung, bitten and cut. If it hadn’t been for the boots Luke’s feet would have been worse off than his hands, but no cutter ever wore gloves. They slowed a man down, and time was money in this game. Besides, gloves were sissy.

At sundown Arne called a halt, and came to see how Luke had fared.

“Hey, mate not bad!” he shouted, thumping Luke on the back. “Five tons; not bad for a first day!”

It was not a long walk back to the barracks, but tropical night fell so suddenly it was dark as they arrived. Before going inside they collected naked in a communal shower, then, towels around their waists, they trooped into the barracks, where whichever cutter on cook duty that week had mountains of whatever was his specialty ready on the table. Today it was steak and potatoes, damper bread and jam roly-poly; the men fell on it and wolfed every last particle down, ravenous.

Two rows of iron pallets faced each other down either side of a long room made of corrugated iron; sighing and cursing the cane with an originality a bullocky might have envied, the men flopped naked on top of unbleached sheets, drew their mosquito nets down from the rings and within moments were asleep, vague shapes under gauzy tents.

Arne detained Luke. “Let me see your hands.” He inspected the bleeding cuts, the blisters, the stings. “Bluebag them first, then use this ointment. And if you take my advice you’ll rub coconut oil into them every night of your life. You’ve got big hands, so if your back can take it you’ll make a good cutter. In a week you’ll harden, you won’t be so sore.”

Every muscle in Luke’s splendid body had its own separate ache; he was conscious of nothing but a vast, crucifying pain. Hands wrapped and anointed, he stretched himself on his allotted bed, pulled down his mosquito net and closed his eyes on a world of little suffocating holes. Had he dreamed what he was in for he would never have wasted his essence on Meggie; she had become a withered, unwanted and unwelcome idea in the back of his mind, shelved. He knew he would never have anything for her while he cut the cane.

It took him the predicted week to harden, and attain the eight-ton-a-day minimum Arne demanded of his gang members. Then he settled down to becoming better than Arne. He wanted the biggest share of the money, maybe a partnership. But most of all he wanted to see that same look that came into every face for Arne directed at himself; Arne was something of a god, for he was the best cutter in Queensland, and that probably meant he was the best cutter in the world. When they went into a town on Saturday night the local men couldn’t buy Arne enough rums and beers, and the local women whirred about him like hummingbirds. There were many similarities between Arne and Luke. They were both vain and enjoyed evoking intense female admiration, but admiration was as far as it went. They had nothing to give to women; they gave it all to the cane.

For Luke the work had a beauty and a pain he seemed to have been waiting all his life to feel. To bend and straighten and bend in that ritual rhythm was to participate in some mystery beyond the scope of ordinary men. For, as watching Arne taught him, to do this superbly was to be a top member of the most elite band of workingmen in the world; he could bear himself with pride no matter where he was, knowing that almost every man he met would never last a day in a cane field. The King of England was no better than he, and the King of England would admire him if he knew him. He could look with pity and contempt on doctors, lawyers, pen-pushers, cockies. To cut sugar the money-hungry white man’s way—that was the greatest achievement.

He would sit on the edge of his cot feeling the ribbed, corded muscles of his arm swell, look at the horny, scarred palms of his hands, the tanned length of his beautifully structured legs, and smile. A man who could do this and not only survive but like it was a man. He wondered if the King of England could say as much.

It was four weeks before Meggie saw Luke. Each Sunday she powdered her sticky nose, put on a pretty silk dress—though she gave up the purgatory of slips and stockings—and waited for her husband, who never came. Anne and Luddie Mueller said nothing, just watched her animation fade as each Sunday darkened dramatically, like a curtain falling on a brilliantly lit, empty stage. It wasn’t that she wanted him, precisely; it was just that he was hers, or she was his, or however best it might be described. To imagine that he didn’t even think of her while she passed her days and weeks waiting with him in her thoughts all the time, to imagine that was to be filled with rage, frustration, bitterness, humiliation, sorrow. Much as she had loathed those two nights at the Dunny pub, at least then she had come first with him; now she found herself actually wishing she had bitten off her tongue sooner than cried out in pain. That was it, of course. Her suffering had made him tire of her, ruined his own pleasure. From anger at him, at his indifference to her pain, she passed to remorse, and ended in blaming it all on herself.

The fourth Sunday she didn’t bother dressing up, just padded around the kitchen bare-footed in shorts and vest, getting a hot breakfast for Luddie and Anne, who enjoyed this incongruity once a week. At the sound of footsteps on the back stairs she turned from bacon sizzling in the pan; for a moment she simply stared at the big, hairy fellow in the doorway. Luke? Was this Luke? He seemed made of rock, inhuman. But the effigy crossed the kitchen, gave her a smacking kiss and sat down at the table. She broke eggs into the pan and put on more bacon.

Anne Mueller came in, smiled civilly and inwardly fumed at him. Wretched man, what was he about, to leave his new wife neglected for so long?

“I’m glad to see you’ve remembered you have a wife,” she said. “Come out onto the veranda, sit with Luddie and me and we’ll all have breakfast. Luke, help Meggie carry the bacon and eggs. I can manage the toast rack in my teeth.”

Ludwig Mueller was Australian-born, but his German heritage was clearly on him: the beefy red complexion not able to cope with beer and sun combined, the square grey head, the pale-blue Baltic eyes. He and his wife liked Meggie very much, and counted themselves fortunate to have acquired her services. Especially was Luddie grateful, seeing how much happier Anne was since that goldy head had been glowing around the house.

“How’s the cutting, Luke?” he asked, shoveling eggs and bacon onto his plate.

“If I said I liked it, would you believe me?” Luke laughed, heaping his own plate.

Luddie’s shrewd eyes rested on the handsome face, and he nodded. “Oh, yes. You’ve got the right sort of temperament and the right sort of body, I think. It makes you feel better than other men, superior to them.” Caught in his heritage of cane fields, far from academia and with no chance of exchanging one for the other, Luddie was an ardent student of human nature; he read great fat tomes bound in Morocco leather with names on their spines like Freud and Jung, Huxley and Russell.

“I was beginning to think you were never going to come and see Meggie,” Anne said, spreading ghee on her toast with a brush; it was the only way they could have butter up here, but it was better than none.

“Well, Arne and I decided to work on Sundays for a while. Tomorrow we’re off to Ingham.”

“Which means poor Meggie won’t see you too often.”

“Meg understands. It won’t be for more than a couple of years, and we do have the summer layoff. Arne says he can get me work at the CSR in Sydney then, and I might take Meg with me.”

“Why do you have to work so hard, Luke?” asked Anne.

“Got to get the money together for my property out west, around Kynuna. Didn’t Meg mention it?”

“I’m afraid our Meggie’s not much good at personal talk. You tell us, Luke.”

The three listeners sat watching the play of expression on the tanned, strong face, the glitter of those very blue eyes; since he had come before breakfast Meggie hadn’t uttered a word to anyone. On and on he talked about the marvelous country Back of Beyond; the grass, the big grey brolga birds mincing delicately in the dust of Kynuna’s only road, the thousands upon thousands of flying kangaroos, the hot dry sun.

“And one day soon a big chunk of all that is going to be mine. Meg’s put a bit of money toward it, and at the pace we’re working it won’t take more than four or five years. Sooner, if I was content to have a poorer place, but knowing what I can earn cutting sugar, I’m tempted to cut a bit longer and get a really decent bit of land.” He leaned forward, big scarred hands around his teacup. “Do you know I nearly passed Arne’s tally the other day? Eleven tons I cut in one day!”

Luddie’s whistle was genuinely admiring, and they embarked upon a discussion of tallies. Meggie sipped her strong dark milkless tea. Oh, Luke! First it had been a couple of years, now it was four or five, and who knew how long it would be the next time he mentioned a period of years? Luke loved it, no one could mistake that. So would he give it up when the time came? Would he? For that matter, did she want to wait around to find out? The Muellers were very kind and she was far from overworked, but if she had to live without a husband, Drogheda was the best place. In the month of her stay at Himmelhoch she hadn’t felt really well for one single day; she didn’t want to eat, she suffered bouts of painful diarrhea, she seemed dogged by lethargy and couldn’t shake it off. Not used to feeling anything but tiptop well, the vague malaise frightened her.

After breakfast Luke helped her wash the dishes, then took her for a walk down to the nearest cane field, talking all the time about the sugar and what it was like to cut it, what a beaut life it was out in the open air, what a beaut lot of blokes they were in Arne’s gang, how different it was from shearing, and how much better.

They turned and walked up the hill again; Luke led her into the exquisitely cool cavern under the house, between the piles. Anne had made a conservatory out of it, stood pieces of terra-cotta pipe of differing lengths and girths upright, then filled them with soil and planted trailing, dangling things in them; orchids of every kind and color, ferns, exotic creepers and bushes. The ground was soft and redolent of wood chips; great wire baskets hung from the joists overhead, full of ferns or orchids or tuberoses; staghorns in bark nests grew on the piles; magnificent begonias in dozens of brilliant colors had been planted around the bases of the pipes. It was Meggie’s favorite retreat, the one thing of Himmelhoch’s she preferred to anything of Drogheda’s. For Drogheda could never hope to grow so much on one small spot; there just wasn’t enough moisture in the air.

“Isn’t this lovely, Luke? Do you think perhaps after a couple of years up here we might be able to rent a house for me to live in? I’m dying to try something like this for myself.”

“What on earth do you want to live alone in a house for? This isn’t Gilly, Meg; it’s the sort of place where a woman on her own isn’t safe. You’re much better off here, believe me. Aren’t you happy here?”

“I’m as happy as one can be in someone else’s home.”

“Look, Meg, you’ve just got to be content with what you have now until we move out west. We can’t spend money renting houses and having you live a life of leisure and still save. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Luke.”

He was so upset he didn’t do what he had intended to do when he led her under the house, namely kiss her. Instead he gave her a casual smack on the bottom which hurt a little too much to be casual, and set off down the road to the spot where he had left his bike propped against a tree. He had pedaled twenty miles to see her rather than spend money on a rail motor and a bus, which meant he had to pedal twenty miles back.

“The poor little soul!” said Anne to Luddie. “I could kill him!”

January came and went, the slackest month of the year for cane cutters, but there was no sign of Luke. He had murmured about taking Meggie to Sydney, but instead he went to Sydney with Arne and without her. Arne was a bachelor and had an aunt with a house in Rozelle, within walking distance (no tram fares; save money) of the CSR, the Colonial Sugar Refineries. Within those gargantuan concrete walls like a fortress on a hill, a cutter with connections could get work. Luke and Arne kept in trim stacking sugar bags, and swimming or surfing in their spare time.

Left in Dungloe with the Muellers, Meggie sweated her way through The Wet, as the monsoon season was called. The Dry lasted from March to November and in this part of the continent wasn’t exactly dry, but compared to The Wet it was heavenly. During The Wet the skies just opened and vomited water, not all day but in fits and starts; in between deluges the land steamed, great clouds of white vapor rising from the cane, the soil, the jungle, the mountains.

And as time went on Meggie longed for home more and more. North Queensland, she knew now, could never become home to her. For one thing, the climate didn’t suit her, perhaps because she had spent most of her life in dryness. And she hated the loneliness, the unfriendliness, the feeling of remorseless lethargy. She hated the prolific insect and reptile life which made each night an ordeal of giant toads, tarantulas, cockroaches, rats; nothing seemed to keep them out of the house, and she was terrified of them. They were so huge, so aggressive, so hungry. Most of all she hated the dunny, which was not only the local patois for toilet but the diminutive for Dungloe, much to the delight of the local populace, who punned on it perpetually. But a Dunny dunny left one’s stomach churning in revolt, for in this seething climate holes in the ground were out of the question because of typhoid and other enteric fevers. Instead of being a hole in the ground, a Dunny dunny was a tarred tin can which stank, and as it filled came alive with noisome maggots and worms. Once a week the can was removed and replaced with an empty one, but once a week wasn’t soon enough.

Meggie’s whole spirit rebelled against the casual local acceptance of such things as normal; a lifetime in North Queensland couldn’t reconcile her to them. Yet dismally she reflected that it probably would be a whole lifetime, or at least until Luke was too old to cut the sugar. Much as she longed for and dreamed of Drogheda, she was far too proud to admit to her family that her husband neglected her; sooner than admit that, she’d take the lifetime sentence, she told herself fiercely.

Months went by, then a year, and time crept toward the second year’s end. Only the constant kindness of the Muellers kept Meggie in residence at Himmelhoch, trying to resolve her dilemma. Had she written to ask Bob for the fare home he would have sent it by return telegram, but poor Meggie couldn’t face telling her family that Luke kept her without a penny in her purse. The day she did tell them was the day she would leave Luke, never to go back to him, and she hadn’t made up her mind yet to take such a step. Everything in her up-bringing conspired to prevent her leaving Luke: the sacredness of her marriage vows, the hope she might have a baby one day, the position Luke occupied as husband and master of her destiny. Then there were the things which sprang from her own nature: that stubborn, stiff-necked pride, and the niggling conviction that the situation was as much her fault as Luke’s. If there wasn’t something wrong with her, Luke might have behaved far differently.

She had seen him six times in the eighteen months of her exile, and often thought, quite unaware such a thing as homosexuality existed, that by rights Luke should have married Arne, because he certainly lived with Arne and much preferred his company. They had gone into full partnership and drifted up and down the thousand-mile coast following the sugar harvest, living, it seemed, only to work. When Luke did come to see her he didn’t attempt any kind of intimacy, just sat around for an hour or two yarning to Luddie and Anne, took his wife for a walk, gave her a friendly kiss, and was off again.

The three of them, Luddie, Anne and Meggie, spent all their spare time reading. Himmelhoch had a library far larger than Drogheda’s few shelves, more erudite and more salacious by far, and Meggie learned a great deal while she read.

One Sunday in June of 1936 Luke and Arne turned up together, very pleased with themselves. They had come, they said, to give Meggie a real treat, for they were taking her to a ceilidh.

Unlike the general tendency of ethnic groups in Australia to scatter and become purely Australian, the various nationalities in the North Queensland peninsula tended to preserve their traditions fiercely: the Chinese, the Italians, the Germans and the Scots-Irish, these four groups making up the bulk of the population. And when the Scots threw a ceilidh every Scot for miles attended.

To Meggie’s astonishment, Luke and Arne were wearing kilts, looking, she thought when she got her breath back, absolutely magnificent. Nothing is more masculine on a masculine man than a kilt, for it swings with a long clean stride in a flurry of pleats behind and stays perfectly still in front, the sporran like a loin guard, and below the mid-knee hem strong fine legs in diamond checkered hose, buckled shoes. It was far too hot to wear the plaid and the jacket; they had contented themselves with white shirts open halfway down their chests, sleeves rolled up above their elbows.

“What’s a ceilidh anyway?” she asked as they set off.

“It’s Gaelic for a gathering, a shindig.”

“Why on earth are you wearing kilts?”

“We won’t be let in unless we are, and we’re well known at all the ceilidhs between Bris and Cairns.”

“Are you now? I imagine you must indeed go to quite a few, otherwise I can’t see Luke outlaying money for a kilt. Isn’t that so, Arne?”

“A man’s got to have some relaxation,” said Luke, a little defensively.

The ceilidh was being held in a barnlike shack falling to rack and ruin down in the midst of the mangrove swamps festering about the mouth of the Dungloe River. Oh, what a country this was for smells! Meggie thought in despair, her nose twitching to yet another indescribably disgusting aroma. Molasses, mildew, dunnies, and now mangroves. All the rotting effluvia of the seashore rolled into one smell.

Sure enough, every man arriving at the shed wore a kilt; as they went in and she looked around, Meggie understood how drab a peahen must feel when dazzled by the vivid gorgeousness of her mate. The women were overshadowed into near nonexistence, an impression which the later stages of the evening only sharpened.

Two pipers in the complex, light-blue-based Anderson tartan were standing on a rickety dais at one end of the hall, piping a cheerful reel in perfect synchrony, sandy hair on end, sweat running down ruddy faces.

A few couples were dancing, but most of the noisy activity seemed to be centered around a group of men who were passing out glasses of what was surely Scotch whiskey. Meggie found herself thrust into a corner with several other women, and was content to stay there watching, fascinated. Not one woman wore a clan tartan, for indeed no Scotswoman wears the kilt, only the plaid, and it was too hot to drape a great heavy piece of material around the shoulders. So the women wore their dowdy North Queensland cotton dresses; which stuttered into limp silence beside the men’s kilts. There was the blazing red and white of Clan Menzies, the cheery black and yellow of Clan MacLeod of Lewis, the windowpane blue and red checks of Clan Skene, the vivid complexity of Clan Ogilvy, the lovely red, grey and black of Clan MacPherson. Luke in Clan MacNeil, Arne in the Sassenach’s Jacobean tartan. Beautiful!

Luke and Arne were obviously well known and well liked. How often did they come without her, then? And what had possessed them to bring her tonight? She sighed, leaned against the wall. The other women were eyeing her curiously, especially the rings on her wedding finger; Luke and Arne were the objects of much feminine admiration, herself the object of much feminine envy. I wonder what they’d say if I told them the big dark one, who is my husband, has seen me precisely twice in the last eight months, and never sees me with the idea of getting into a bed? Look at the pair of them, the conceited Highland fops! And neither of them Scottish at all, just playacting because they know they look sensational in kilts and they like to be the center of attention. You magnificent pair of frauds! You’re too much in love with yourselves to want or need love from anyone else.

At midnight the women were relegated to standing around the walls; the pipers skirled into “Caber Feidh” and the serious dancing began. For the rest of her life, whenever she heard the sound of a piper Meggie was back in that shed. Even the swirl of a kilt could do it; there was that dreamlike merging of sound and sight, of life and brilliant vitality, which means a memory so piercing, so spellbinding, that it will never be lost.

Down went the crossed swords on the floor; two men in Clan MacDonald of Sleat kilts raised their arms above their heads, hands flicked over like ballet dancers, and very gravely, as if at the end the swords would be plunged into their breasts, began to pick their delicate way through, between, among the blades.

A high shrill scream ripped above the airy wavering of the pipes, the tune became “All the Blue Bonnets over the Border,” the sabers were scooped up, and every man in the room swung into the dance, arms linking and dissolving, kilts flaring. Reels, strathspeys, flings; they danced them all, feet on the board floor sending echoes among the rafters, buckles on shoes flashing, and every time the pattern changed someone would throw back his head, emit that shrill, ululating whoop, set off trains of cries from other exuberant throats. While the women watched, forgotten.

It was close to four in the morning when the ceilidh broke up; outside was not the astringent crispness of Blair Atholl or Skye but the torpor of a tropical night, a great heavy moon dragging itself along the spangled wastes of the heavens, and over it all the stinking miasma of mangroves. Yet as Arne drove them off in the wheezing old Ford, the last thing Meggie heard was the drifting dwindling lament “Flowers o’ the Forest,” bidding the revelers home. Home. Where was home?

“Well, did you enjoy that?” asked Luke.

“I would have enjoyed it more had I danced more,” she answered.

“What, at a ceilidh? Break it down, Meg! Only the men are supposed to dance, so we’re actually pretty good to you women, letting you dance at all.”

“It seems to me only men do a lot of things, and especially if they’re good things, enjoyable things.”

“Well, excuse me!” said Luke stiffly. “Here was I thinking you might like a bit of a change, which was why I brought you. I didn’t have to, you know! And if you’re not grateful I won’t bring you again.”

“You probably don’t have any intention of doing so, anyway,” said Meggie. “It isn’t good to admit me into your life. I learned a lot these past few hours, but I don’t think it’s what you intended to teach me. It’s getting harder to fool me, Luke. In fact, I’m fed up with you, with the life I’m leading, with everything!”

“Ssssh!” he hissed, scandalized. “We’re not alone!”

“Then come alone!” she snapped. “When do I ever get the chance to see you alone for more than a few minutes?”

Arne pulled up at the bottom of the Himmelhoch hill, grinning at Luke sympathetically. “Go on, mate,” he said. “Walk her up; I’ll wait here for you. No hurry.”

“I mean it, Luke!” Meggie said as soon as they were out of Arne’s hearing. “The worm’s turning, do you hear me? I know I promised to obey you, but you promised to love and cherish me, so we’re both liars! I want to go home to Drogheda!”

He thought of her two thousand pounds a year and of its ceasing to be put in his name.

“Oh, Meg!” he said helplessly. “Look, sweetheart, it won’t be forever, I promise! And this summer I’m going to take you to Sydney with me, word of an O’Neill! Arne’s aunt has a flat coming vacant in her house, and we can live there for three months, have a wonderful time! Bear with me another year or so in the cane, then we’ll buy our property and settle down, eh?”

The moon lit up his face; he looked sincere, upset, anxious, contrite. And very like Ralph de Bricassart.

Meggie relented, because she still wanted his babies. “All right,” she said. “Another year. But I’m holding you to that promise of Sydney, Luke, so remember!”

Four

1933–1938
Luke

10

It was amazing how quickly the land mended; within a week little green shoots of grass were poking out of the gluey morass, and within two months the roasted trees were coming into leaf. If the people were tough and resilient, it was because the land gave them no opportunity to be otherwise; those who were faint in heart or lacking a fanatical streak of endurance did not stay long in the Great Northwest. But it would be years before the scars faded. Many coats of bark would have to grow and fall to eucalyptoid tatters before the tree trunks became white or red or grey again, and a certain percentage of the timber would not regenerate at all, but remain dead and dark. And for years disintegrating skeletons would dew the plains, subsiding into the matting of time, gradually covered by dust and marching little hoofs. And straggling out across Drogheda to the west the sharp deep channels cut by the corners of a makeshift bier in the mud remained, were pointed out by wanderers who knew the story to more wanderers who did not, until the tale became a part of black-soil plains lore.

Drogheda lost perhaps a fifth of its acreage in the fire, and 25,000 sheep, a mere bagatelle to a station whose sheep tally in the recent good years lay in the neighborhood of 125,000. There was absolutely no point in railing at the malignity of fate, or the wrath of God, however those concerned might choose to regard a natural disaster. The only thing to do was cut the losses and begin again. In no case was it the first time, and in no case did anyone assume it would be the last.

But to see Drogheda’s homestead gardens bare and brown in spring hurt badly. Against drought they could survive thanks to Michael Carson’s water tanks, but in a fire nothing survived. Even the wistaria failed to bloom; when the flames came its tender clusters of buds were just forming, and shriveled. Roses were crisped, pansies were dead, stocks turned to sepia straw, fuchsias in shady spots withered past rejuvenation, babies’-breath smothered, sweet pea vines were sere and scentless. What had been bled from the water tanks during the fire was replaced by the heavy rain that followed hard on it, so everyone on Drogheda sacrificed a nebulous spare time to helping old Tom bring the gardens back.

Bob decided to keep on with Paddy’s policy of more hands to run Drogheda, and put on three more stockmen; Mary Carson’s policy had been to keep no permanent non-Cleary men on her books, preferring to hire extra hands at mustering, lambing and shearing time, but Paddy felt the men worked better knowing they had permanent jobs, and it didn’t make much difference in the long run. Most stockmen were chronically afflicted with itchy feet, and never stayed very long anywhere.

The new houses sitting farther back from the creek were inhabited by married men; old Tom had a neat new three-room cottage under a pepper tree behind the horse yards, and cackled with proprietary glee every time he entered it. Meggie continued to look after some of the inner paddocks, and her mother the books.

Fee had taken over Paddy’s task of communicating with Bishop Ralph, and being Fee failed to pass on any information save those items concerned with the running of the station. Meggie longed to snatch his letters, read them greedily, but Fee gave her no chance to do so, locking them in a steel box the moment she had digested their contents. With Paddy and Stu gone there was just no reaching Fee. As for Meggie, the minute Bishop Ralph had gone Fee forgot all about her promise. Meggie answered dance and party invitations with polite negatives; aware of it, Fee never remonstrated with her or told her she ought to go. Liam O’Rourke seized any opportunity to drive over; Enoch Davies phoned constantly, so did Connor Carmichael and Alastair MacQueen. But with each of them Meggie was pre-occupied, curt, to the point where they despaired of interesting her.

The summer was very wet, but not in spates protracted enough to cause flooding, only keeping the ground perpetually muddy and the thousand-mile Barwon-Darling flowing deep, wide and strong. When winter came sporadic rain continued; the flying brown sheets were made up of water, not dust. Thus the Depression march of foot-loose men along the track tapered off, for it was hell tramping through the black-soil plains in a wet season, and with cold added to damp, pneumonia raged among those not able to sleep under warm shelter.

Bob was worried, and began to talk of foot rot among the sheep if it kept up; merinos couldn’t take much moisture in the ground without developing diseased hoofs. The shearing had been almost impossible, for shearers would not touch soaked wool, and unless the mud dried before lambing many offspring would die in the sodden earth and the cold.

The phone jangled its two longs, one short for Drogheda; Fee answered and turned.

“Bob, the AML&F for you.”

“Hullo, Jimmy, Bob here…. Yeah, righto…. Oh, good! References all in order?…Righto, send him out to see me…. Righto, if he’s that good you can tell him he’s probably got the job, but I still want to see him for myself; don’t like pigs in pokes and don’t trust references…. Righto, thanks. Hooroo.”

Bob sat down again. “New stockman coming, a good bloke according to Jimmy. Been working out on the West Queensland plains around Longreach and Charleville. Was a drover, too. Good references and all aboveboard. Can sit anything with four legs and a tail, used to break horses. Was a shearer before that, gun shearer too, Jimmy says, over two fifty a day. That’s what makes me a bit suspicious. Why would a gun shearer want to work for stockman’s wages? Not too often a gun shearer will give up the boggi for a saddle. Be handy paddock-crutching, though, eh?”

With the passing of the years Bob’s accent grew more drawling and Australian but his sentences shorter in compensation. He was creeping up toward thirty, and much to Meggie’s disappointment showed no sign of being smitten with any of the eligible girls he met at the few festivities decency forced them to attend. For one thing he was painfully shy, and for another he seemed utterly wrapped in the land, apparently preferring to love it without distraction. Jack and Hughie grew more and more like him; indeed, they could have passed for triplets as they sat together on one of the hard marble benches, the closest to comfortable housebound relaxation they could get. They seemed actually to prefer camping out in the paddocks, and when sleeping at home stretched out on the floors of their bedrooms, frightened that beds might soften them. The sun, the wind and the dryness had weathered their fair, freckled skins to a sort of mottled mahogany, in which their blue eyes shone pale and tranquil, with the deep creases beside them speaking of gazing into far distances and silver-beige grass. It was almost impossible to tell what age they were, or which was the oldest and which the youngest. Each had Paddy’s Roman nose and kind homely face, but better bodies than Paddy’s, which had been stooped and arm-elongated from so many years shearing. They had developed the spare, easy beauty of horsemen instead. Yet for women and comfort and pleasure they did not pine.

“Is the new man married?” asked Fee, drawing neat lines with a ruler and a red-inked pen.

“Dunno, didn’t ask. Know tomorrow when he comes.”

“How is he getting here?”

“Jimmy’s driving him out; got to see about those old wethers in Tankstand.”

“Well, let’s hope he stays awhile. If he’s not married he’ll be off again in a few weeks, I suppose. Wretched people, stockmen,” said Fee.

Jims and Patsy were boarding at Riverview, vowing they wouldn’t stay at school a minute longer than the fourteen years of age which was legal. They burned for the day when they would be out in the paddocks with Bob, Jack and Hughie, when Drogheda could run on family again and the outsiders would be welcome to come and go as frequently as they pleased. Sharing the family passion for reading didn’t endear Riverview to them at all; a book could be carried in a saddlebag or a jacket pocket and read with far more pleasure in the noonday shade of a wilga than in a Jesuit classroom. It had been a hard transition for them, boarding school. The big-windowed classrooms, the spacious green playing fields, the wealth of gardens and facilities meant nothing to them, nor did Sydney with its museums, concert halls and art galleries. They chummed up with the sons of other graziers and spent their leisure hours longing for home, or boasting about the size and splendor of Drogheda to awed but believing ears; anyone west of Burren Junction had heard of mighty Drogheda.

Several weeks passed before Meggie saw the new stockman. His name had been duly entered in the books, Luke O’Neill, and he was already talked about in the big house far more than stockmen usually were. For one thing, he had refused to bunk in the jackaroos’ barracks but had taken up residence in the last empty house upon the creek. For another, he had introduced himself to Mrs. Smith, and was in that lady’s good books, though she didn’t usually care for stockmen. Meggie was quite curious about him long before she met him.

Since she kept the chestnut mare and the black gelding in the stables rather than the stockyards and was mostly obliged to start out later of a morning than the men, she would often go long periods of time without running into any of the hired people. But she finally met Luke O’Neill late one afternoon as the summer sun was flaring redly over the trees and the long shadows crept toward the gentle oblivion of night. She was coming back from Borehead to the ford across the creek, he was coming in from southeast and farther out, also on a course for the ford.

The sun was in his eyes, so she saw him before he saw her, and he was riding a big mean bay with a black mane and tail and black points; she knew the animal well because it was her job to rotate the work horses, and she had wondered why this particular beast was not so much in evidence these days. None of the men cared for it, never rode it if they could help. Apparently the new stockman didn’t mind it at all, which certainly indicated he could ride, for it was a notorious early-morning bucker and had a habit of snapping at its rider’s head the moment he dismounted.

It was hard to tell a man’s height when he was on horseback, for Australian stockmen used small English saddles minus the high cantle and horn of the American saddle, and rode with their knees bent, sitting very upright. The new man seemed tall, but sometimes height was all in the trunk, the legs disproportionately short, so Meggie reserved judgment. However, unlike most stockmen he preferred a white shirt and white moleskins to grey flannel and grey twill; somewhat of a dandy, she decided, amused. Good luck to him, if he didn’t mind the bother of so much washing and ironing.

“G’day, Missus!” he called as they converged, doffing his battered old grey felt hat and replacing it rakishly on the back of his head.

Laughing blue eyes looked at Meggie in undisguised admiration as she drew alongside.

“Well, you’re certainly not the Missus, so you’ve got to be the daughter,” he said. “I’m Luke O’Neill.”

Meggie muttered something but wouldn’t look at him again, so confused and angry she couldn’t think of any appropriately light conversation. Oh, it wasn’t fair! How dare someone else have eyes and face like Father Ralph! Not the way he looked at her: the mirth was something of his own and he had no love burning for her there; from the first moment of seeing Father Ralph kneeling in the dust of the Gilly station yard Meggie had seen love in his eyes. To look into his eyes and not see him! It was a cruel joke, a punishment.

Unaware of the thoughts his companion harbored, Luke O’Neill kept his wicked bay beside Meggie’s demure mare as they splashed through the creek, still running strong from so much rain. She was a beauty, all right! That hair! What was simply carrots on the male Clearys was something else again on this little sprig. If only she would look up, give him a better chance to see that face! Just then she did, with such a look on it that his brows came together, puzzled; not as if she hated him, exactly, but as if she was trying to see something and couldn’t, or had seen something and wished she hadn’t. Or whatever. It seemed to upset her, anyway. Luke was not used to being weighed in a feminine balance and found wanting. Caught naturally in a delicious trap of sunset-gold hair and soft eyes, his interest only fed on her displeasure and disappointment. Still she was watching him, pink mouth fallen slightly open, a silky dew of sweat on her upper lip and forehead because it was so hot, her reddish-gold brows arched in seeking wonderment.

He grinned to reveal Father Ralph’s big white teeth; yet it was not Father Ralph’s smile. “Do you know you look exactly like a baby, all oh! and ah!?”

She looked away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. You reminded me of someone, that’s all.”

“Stare all you like. It’s better than looking at the top of your head, pretty though that might be. Who do I remind you of?”

“No one important. It’s just strange, seeing someone familiar and yet terribly unfamiliar.”

“What’s your name, little Miss Cleary?”

“Meggie.”

“Meggie…It hasn’t got enough dignity, it doesn’t suit you a bit. I’d rather you were called something like Belinda or Madeline, but if Meggie’s the best you’ve got to offer, I’ll go for it. What’s the Meggie stand for—Margaret?”

“No, Meghann.”

“Ah, now that’s more like! I’ll call you Meghann.”

“No, you won’t!” she snapped. “I detest it!”

But he only laughed. “You’ve had too much of your own way, little Miss Meghann. If I want to call you Eustacia Sophronia Augusta, I will, you know.”

They had reached the stockyards; he slipped off his bay, aiming a punch at its snapping head which rocked it into submission, and stood, obviously waiting for her to offer him her hands so he could help her down. But she touched the chestnut mare with her heels and walked on up the track.

“Don’t you put the dainty lady with the common old stockmen?” he called after her.

“Certainly not!” she answered without turning.

Oh, it wasn’t fair! Even on his own two feet he was like Father Ralph; as tall, as broad in the shoulders and narrow in the hips, and with something of the same grace, though differently employed. Father Ralph moved like a dancer, Luke O’Neill like an athlete. His hair was as thick and black and curling, his eyes as blue, his nose as fine and straight, his mouth as well cut. And yet he was no more like Father Ralph than—than—than a ghost gum, so tall and pale and splendid, was like a blue gum, also tall and pale and splendid.

After that chance meeting Meggie kept her ears open for opinions and gossip about Luke O’Neill. Bob and the boys were pleased with his work and seemed to get along well with him; apparently he hadn’t a lazy bone in his body, according to Bob. Even Fee brought his name up in conversation one evening by remarking that he was a very handsome man.

“Does he remind you of anyone?” Meggie asked idly, flat on her stomach on the carpet reading a book.

Fee considered the question for a moment. “Well, I suppose he’s a bit like Father de Bricassart. The same build, the same coloring. But it isn’t a striking likeness; they’re too different as men.

“Meggie, I wish you’d sit in a chair like a lady to read! Just because you’re in jodhpurs you don’t have to forget modesty entirely.”

“Pooh!” said Meggie. “As if anyone notices!”

And so it went. There was a likeness, but the men behind the faces were so unalike only Meggie was plagued by it, for she was in love with one of them and resented finding the other attractive. In the kitchen she found he was a prime favorite, and also discovered how he could afford the luxury of wearing white shirts and white breeches into the paddocks; Mrs. Smith washed and ironed them for him, succumbing to his ready, beguiling charm.

“Och, what a fine Irishman he is and all!” Minnie sighed ecstatically.

“He’s an Australian,” said Meggie provocatively.

“Born here, maybe, Miss Meggie darlin’, but wit’ a name like O’Neill now, he’s as Irish as Paddy’s pigs, not meanin’ any disrespect to yer sainted father, Miss Meggie, may he rest in peace and sing wit’ the angels. Mr. Luke not Irish, and him wit’ that black hair, thim blue eyes? In the old days the O’Neills was the kings of Ireland.”

“I thought the O’Connors were,” said Meggie slyly.

Minnie’s round little eyes twinkled. “Ah, well now, Miss Meggie, ’twas a big country and all.”

“Go on! It’s about the size of Drogheda! And anyway, O’Neill is an Orange name; you can’t fool me.”

“It is that. But it’s a great Irish name and it existed before there were Orangemen ever thought of. It is a name from Ulster parts, so it’s logical there’d have to be a few of thim Orange, isn’t it now? But there was the O’Neill of Clandeboy and the O’Neill Mor back when, Miss Meggie darlin’.”

Meggie gave up the battle; Minnie had long since lost any militant Fenian tendencies she might once have possessed, and could pronounce the word “Orange” without having a stroke.

About a week later she ran into Luke O’Neill again, down by the creek. She suspected he had lain in wait for her, but she didn’t know what to do about it if he had.

“Good afternoon, Meghann.”

“Good afternoon,” said she, looking straight between the chestnut mare’s ears.

“There’s a woolshed ball at Braich y Pwll next Saturday night. Will you come with me?”

“Thank you for asking me, but I can’t dance. There wouldn’t be any point.”

“I’ll teach you how to dance in two flicks of a dead lamb’s tail, so that’s no obstacle. Since I’ll taking the squatter’s sister, do you think Bob might let me borrow the old Rolls, if not the new one?”

“I said I wouldn’t go!” she said, teeth clenched.

“You said you couldn’t dance, I said I’d teach you. You never said you wouldn’t go with me if you could dance, so I assumed it was the dancing you objected to, not me. Are you going to back out?”

Exasperated, she glared at him fiercely, but he only laughed at her.

“You’re spoiled rotten, young Meghann; it’s time you didn’t get all your own way.”

“I’m not spoiled!”

“Go on, tell me another! The only girl, all those brothers to run round after you, all this land and money, a posh house, servants? I know the Catholic Church owns it, but the Clearys aren’t short of a penny either.”

That was the big difference between them! she thought triumphantly; it had been eluding her since she met him. Father Ralph would never have fallen for outward trappings, but this man lacked his sensitivity; he had no inbuilt antennae to tell him what lay beneath the surface. He rode through life without an idea in his head about its complexity or its pain.

Flabbergasted, Bob handed over the keys to the new Rolls without a murmur; he had stared at Luke for a moment without speaking, then grinned.

“I never thought of Meggie going to a dance, but take her, Luke, and welcome! I daresay she’d like it, the poor little beggar. She never gets out much. We ought to think of taking her, but somehow we never do.”

“Why don’t you and Jack and Hughie come, too?” Luke asked, apparently not averse to company.

Bob shook his head, horrified. “No, thanks. We’re not too keen on dances.”

Meggie wore her ashes-of-roses dress, not having anything else to wear; it hadn’t occurred to her to use some of the stockpiling pounds Father Ralph put in the bank in her name to have dresses made for parties and balls. Until now she had managed to refuse invitations, for men like Enoch Davies and Alastair MacQueen were easy to discourage with a firm no. They didn’t have Luke O’Neill’s gall.

But as she stared at herself in the mirror she thought she just might go into Gilly next week when Mum made her usual trip, visit old Gert and have her make up a few new frocks.

For she hated wearing this dress; if she had owned one other even remotely suitable, it would have been off in a second. Other times, a different black-haired man; it was so tied up with love and dreams, tears and loneliness, that to wear it for such a one as Luke O’Neill seemed a desecration. She had grown used to hiding what she felt, to appearing always calm and outwardly happy. Self-control was growing around her thicker than bark on a tree, and sometimes in the night she would think of her mother, and shiver.

Would she end up like Mum, cut off from all feeling? Was this how it began for Mum back in the days when there was Frank’s father? And what on earth would Mum do, what would she say if she knew Meggie had learned the truth about Frank? Oh, that scene in the presbytery! It seemed like yesterday, Daddy and Frank facing each other, and Ralph holding her so hard he hurt. Shouting those awful things. Everything had fallen into place. Meggie thought she must always have known, once she did. She had grown up enough to realize there was more to getting babies than she used to think; some sort of physical contact absolutely forbidden between any but a married couple. What disgrace and humiliation poor Mum must have gone through over Frank. No wonder she was the way she was. If it happened to her, Meggie thought, she would want to die. In books only the lowest, cheapest girls had babies outside of marriage; yet Mum wasn’t cheap, could never have been cheap. With all her heart Meggie wished Mum could talk to her about it, or that she herself had the courage to bring up the subject. Perhaps in some small way she might have been able to help. But Mum wasn’t the sort of person one could approach, nor would Mum do the approaching. Meggie sighed at herself in the mirror, and hoped nothing like that ever happened to her.

Yet she was young; at times like this, staring at herself in the ashes-of-roses dress, she wanted to feel, wanted emotion to blow over her like a strong hot wind. She didn’t want to plod like a little automaton for the rest of her life, she wanted change and vitality and love. Love, and a husband, and babies. What was the use of hungering after a man she could never have? He didn’t want her, he never would want her. He said he loved her, but not as a husband would love her. Because he was married to the Church. Did all men do that, love some inanimate thing more than they could love a woman? No, surely not all men. The difficult ones, perhaps, the complex ones with their seas of doubts and objections, rationalities. But there had to be simpler men, men who could surely love a woman before all else. Men like Luke O’Neill, for instance.

“I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” said Luke as he started the Rolls.

Compliments were quite out of Meggie’s ken; she gave him a startled sidelong glance and said nothing.

“Isn’t this nice?” Luke asked, apparently not upset at her lack of enthusiasm. “Just turn a key and press a button on the dashboard and the car starts. No cranking a handle, no hoping the darned donk catches before a man’s exhausted. This is the life, Meghann, no doubt about it.”

“You won’t leave me alone, will you?” she asked.

“Good Lord, no! You’ve come with me, haven’t you? That means you’re mine all night long, and I don’t intend giving anyone else a chance.”

“How old are you, Luke?”

“Thirty. How old are you?”

“Almost twenty-three.”

“As much as that, eh? You look like a baby.”

“I’m not a baby.”

“Oho! Have you ever been in love, then?”

“Once.”

“Is that all? At twenty-three? Good Lord! I’d been in and out of love a dozen times by your age.”

“I daresay I might have been, too, but I meet very few people to fall in love with on Drogheda. You’re the first stockman I remember who said more than a shy hello.”

“Well, if you won’t go to dances because you can’t dance, you’re on the outside looking in right there, aren’t you? Never mind, we’ll fix that up in no time. By the end of the evening you’ll be dancing, and in a few weeks we’ll have you a champion.” He glanced at her quickly. “But you can’t tell me some of the squatters off other stations haven’t tried to get you to come to the odd dance with them. Stockmen I can understand, you’re a cut above the usual stockman’s inclinations, but some of the sheep cockies must have given you the glad eye.”

“If I’m a cut above stockmen, why did you ask me?” she parried.

“Oh, I’ve got all the cheek in the world.” He grinned. “Come on now, don’t change the subject. There must be a few blokes around Gilly who’ve asked.”

“A few,” she admitted. “But I’ve really never wanted to go. You pushed me into it.”

“Then the rest of them are sillier than pet snakes,” he said. “I know a good thing when I see it.”

She wasn’t too sure that she cared for the way he talked, but the trouble with Luke was that he was a hard man to put down.

Everyone came to a woolshed dance, from squatters’ sons and daughters to stockmen and their wives if any, maidservants, governesses, town dwellers of all ages and sexes. For instance, these were occasions when female schoolteachers got the opportunity to fraternize with the stock-and-station-agent apprentices, the bank johnnies and the real bushies off the stations.

The grand manners reserved for more formal affairs were not in evidence at all. Old Mickey O’Brien came out from Gilly to play the fiddle, and there was always someone on hand to man the piano accordion or the button accordion, taking turns to spell each other as Mickey’s accompanists while the old violinist sat on a barrel or a wool bale for hours playing without a rest, his pendulous lower lip drooling because he had no patience with swallowing; it interfered with his tempo.

But it was not the sort of dancing Meggie had seen at Mary Carson’s birthday party. This was energetic round-dancing: barn dances, jigs, polkas, quadrilles, reels, mazurkas, Sir Roger de Coverleys, with no more than a passing touching of the partner’s hands, or a wild swirling in rough arms. There was no sense of intimacy, no dreaminess. Everyone seemed to view the proceedings as a simple dissipation of frustrations; romantic intrigues were furthered better outside, well away from the noise and bustle.

Meggie soon discovered she was much envied her big handsome escort. He was the target of almost as many seductive or languishing looks as Father Ralph used to be, and more blatantly so. As Father Ralph used to be. Used to be. How terrible to have to think of him in the very remotest of all past tenses.

True to his word, Luke left her alone only so long as it took him to visit the Men’s. Enoch Davies and Liam O’Rourke were there, and eager to fill his place alongside her. He gave them no opportunity whatsoever, and Meggie herself seemed too dazed to understand that she was quite within her rights to accept invitations to dance from men other than her escort. Though she didn’t hear the comments, Luke did, secretly laughing. What a damned cheek the fellow had, an ordinary stockman, stealing her from under their noses! Disapproval meant nothing to Luke. They had had their chances; if they hadn’t made the most of them, hard luck.

The last dance was a waltz. Luke took Meggie’s hand and put his arm about her waist, drew her against him. He was an excellent dancer. To her surprise she found she didn’t need to do anything more than follow where he propelled her. And it was a most extraordinary sensation to be held so against a man, to feel the muscles of his chest and thighs, to absorb his body warmth. Her brief contacts with Father Ralph had been so intense she had not had time to perceive discrete things, and she had honestly thought that what she felt in his arms she would never feel in anyone else’s. Yet though this was quite different, it was exciting; her pulse rate had gone up, and she knew he sensed it by the way he turned her suddenly, gripped her more closely, put his cheek on her hair.

As the Rolls purred home, making light of the bumpy track and sometimes no track at all, they didn’t speak very much. Braich y Pwll was seventy miles from Drogheda, across paddocks with never a house to be seen all the way, no lights of someone’s home, no intrusion of humanity. The ridge which cut across Drogheda was not more than a hundred feet higher than the rest of the land, but out on the black-soil plains to reach the crest of it was like being on top of an Alp to a Swiss. Luke stopped the car, got out and came round to open Meggie’s door. She stepped down beside him, trembling a little; was he going to spoil everything by trying to kiss her? It was so quiet, so far from anyone!

There was a decaying dogleg wooden fence wandering off to one side, and holding her elbow lightly to make sure she didn’t stumble in her frivolous shoes, Luke helped Meggie across the uneven ground, the rabbit holes. Gripping the fence tightly and looking out over the plains, she was speechless; first from terror, then, her panic dying as he made no move to touch her, from wonder.

Almost as clearly as the sun could, the moon’s still pale light picked out vast sweeping stretches of distance, the grass shimmering and rippling like a restless sigh, silver and white and grey. Leaves on trees sparkled suddenly like points of fire when the wind turned their glossy tops upward, and great yawning gulfs of shadows spread under timber stands as mysteriously as mouths of the underworld. Lifting her head, she tried to count the stars and could not; as delicate as drops of dew on a wheeling spider’s web the pinpoints flared, went out, flared, went out, in a rhythm as timeless as God. They seemed to hang over her like a net, so beautiful, so very silent, so watchful and searching of the soul, like jewel eyes of insects turned brilliant in a spotlight, blind as to expression and infinite as to seeing power. The only sounds were the wind hot in the grass, hissing trees, an occasional clank from the cooling Rolls, and a sleepy bird somewhere close complaining because they had broken its rest; the sole smell the fragrant, indefinable scent of the bush.

Luke turned his back on the night, pulled out his tobacco pouch and booklet of rice papers, and began to roll himself a cigarette.

“Were you born out here, Meghann?” he asked, rubbing the strands of leaf back and forth in his palm, lazily.

“No, I was born in New Zealand. We came to Drogheda thirteen years ago.”

He slipped the shaped tendrils into their paper sheath, twiddled it expertly between thumb and forefinger, then licked it shut, poked a few wisps back inside the tube with a match end, struck the match and lit up.

“You enjoyed yourself tonight, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes!”

“I’d like to take you to all the dances.”

“Thank you.”

He fell silent again, smoking quietly and looking back across the roof of the Rolls at the stand of timber where the irate bird still twittered querulously. When only a small remnant of the tube sputtered between his stained fingers he dropped it on the ground and screwed his boot heel viciously down upon it until he was sure it was out. No one kills a cigarette as dead as an Australian bushman.

Sighing, Meggie turned from the moon vista, and he helped her to the car. He was far too wise to kiss her at this early stage, because he intended to marry her if he could; let her want to be kissed, first.

But there were other dances, as the summer wore on and wore itself down in bloody, dusty splendor; gradually the homestead got used to the fact that Meggie had found herself a very good-looking boyfriend. Her brothers forbore to tease, for they loved her and liked him well enough. Luke O’Neill was the hardest worker they had ever employed; no better recommendation than that existed. At heart more working class than squatter class, it never occurred to the Cleary men to judge him by his lack of possessions. Fee, who might have weighed him in a more selective balance, didn’t care sufficiently to do so. Anyway, Luke’s calm assumption that he was different from your average stockman bore fruit; because of it, he was treated more like one of themselves.

It became his custom to call up the track at the big house when he was in at night and not out in the paddocks; after a while Bob declared it was silly for him to eat alone when there was plenty on the Cleary table, so he ate with them. After that it seemed rather senseless to send him a mile down the track to sleep when he was nice enough to want to stay talking to Meggie until late, so he was bidden to move into one of the small guesthouses out behind the big house.

By this time Meggie thought about him a great deal, and not as disparagingly as she had at first, always comparing him to Father Ralph. The old sore was healing. After a while she forgot that Father Ralph had smiled so with the same mouth, while Luke smiled thus, that Father Ralph’s vivid blue eyes had had a distant stillness to them while Luke’s glittered with restless passion. She was young and she had never quite got to savor love, if for a moment or two she had tasted it. She wanted to roll it round on her tongue, get the bouquet of it into her lungs, spin it dizzying to her brain. Father Ralph was Bishop Ralph; he would never, never come back to her. He had sold her for thirteen million pieces of silver, and it rankled. If he hadn’t used the phrase that night by the borehead she would not have wondered, but he had used it, and countless were the nights since when she had lain puzzling as to what he could possibly have meant.

And her hands itched with the feel of Luke’s back when he held her close in a dance; she was stirred by him, his touch, his crisp vitality. Oh, she never felt that dark liquid fire in her bones for him, she never thought that if she didn’t see him again she would wither and dry up, she never twitched and trembled because he looked at her. But she had grown to know men like Enoch Davies, Liam O’Rourke, Alastair MacQueen better as Luke squired her to more and more of the district affairs, and none of them moved her the way Luke O’Neill did. If they were tall enough to oblige her to look up, they would turn out not to have Luke’s eyes, or if they had the same sort of eyes, they wouldn’t have his hair. Something was always lacking which wasn’t lacking in Luke, though just what it was Luke possessed she didn’t know. Aside from the fact that he reminded her of Father Ralph, that is, and she refused to admit her attraction had no better basis than that.

They talked a lot, but always about general things; shearing, the land, the sheep, or what he wanted out of life, or perhaps about the places he had seen, or some political happening. He read an occasional book but he wasn’t an inveterate reader like Meggie, and try as she would, she couldn’t seem to persuade him to read this or that book simply because she had found it interesting. Nor did he lead the conversation into intellectual depths; most interesting and irritating of all, he never evinced any interest in her life, or asked her what she wanted from it. Sometimes she longed to talk about matters far closer to her heart than sheep or rain, but if she made a leading statement he was expert at deflecting her into more impersonal channels.

Luke O’Neill was clever, conceited, extremely hardworking and hungry to enrich himself. He had been born in a wattle-and-daub shanty exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn, outside the town of Longreach in Western Queensland. His father was the black sheep of a prosperous but unforgiving Irish family, his mother was the daughter of the German butcher in Winton; when she insisted on marrying Luke senior, she also was disowned. There were ten children in that humpy, none of whom possessed a pair of shoes—not that shoes mattered much in torrid Longreach. Luke senior, who shore for a living when he felt like it (but mostly all he felt like doing was drinking OP rum), died in a fire at the Blackall pub when young Luke was twelve years old. So as soon as he could Luke took himself off on the shearing circuit as a tar boy, slapping molten tar on jagged wounds if a shearer slipped and cut flesh as well as wool.

One thing Luke was never afraid of, and that was hard work; he thrived on it the way some men thrived on its opposite, whether because his father had been a barfly and a town joke or because he had inherited his German mother’s love of industry no one had ever bothered to find out.

As he grew older he graduated from tar boy to shed hand, running down the board catching the great heavy fleeces as they flew off the boggis in one piece billowing up like kites, and carrying them to the wool-rolling table to be skirted. From that he learned to skirt, picking the dirt-encrusted edges off the fleeces and transferring them to bins ready for the attention of the classer, who was shed aristocrat: the man who like a wine-taster or a perfume-tester cannot be trained unless he also has instinct for the job. And Luke didn’t have a classer’s instinct; either he turned to pressing or to shearing if he wanted to earn more money, which he certainly did. He had the strength to man the press, tamp down the graded fleeces into massive bales, but a gun shearer could make more money.

By now he was well known in Western Queensland as a good worker, so he had no trouble getting himself a learner’s pen. With grace, coordination, strength and endurance, all necessary and luckily present in Luke, a man could become a gun shearer. Soon Luke was shearing his two hundred-plus a day six days a week, a quid a hundred; and this with the narrow handpiece resembling a boggi lizard, hence its name. The big New Zealand handpieces with their wide, coarse combs and cutters were illegal in Australia, though they doubled a shearer’s tally.

It was grueling work; bending from his height with a sheep clamped between his knees, sweeping his boggi in blows the length of the sheep’s body to free the wool in one piece and leave as few second cuts as possible, close enough to the loose kinky skin to please the shed boss, who would be down in a second on any shearer not conforming to his rigorous standards. He didn’t mind the heat and the sweat and the thirst which forced him to drink upward of three gallons of water a day, he didn’t even mind the tormenting hordes of flies, for he was born in fly country. Nor did he mind the sheep, which were mostly a shearer’s nightmare; cobblers, wets, overgrowns, snobs, dags, fly-strikes, they came in all varieties, and they were all merinos, which meant wool all the way down to their hoofs and noses, and a cobbled fragile skin which moved like slippery paper.

No, it wasn’t the work itself Luke minded, for the harder he worked the better he felt; what irked him were the noise, the being shut inside, the stench. No place on earth was quite the hell a shearing shed was. Se he decided he wanted to be the boss cocky, the man who strolled up and down the lines of stooping shearers to watch the fleeces he owned being stripped away by that smooth, flawless motion.

At the end of the floor in his cane-bottomed chair

Sits the boss of the board with his eyes everywhere.

That was what the old shearing song said, and that was who Luke O’Neill decided to be. The boss cocky, the head peanut, the grazier, the squatter. Not for him the perpetual stoop, the elongated arms of a lifelong shearer; he wanted the pleasure of working out in the open air while he watched the money roll in. Only the prospect of becoming a dreadnought shearer might have kept Luke inside a shed, one of the rare handful of men who managed to shear over three hundred merino sheep a day, all to standard, and using narrow boggis. They made fortunes on the side by betting. But unfortunately he was just a little too tall, those extra seconds bending and ducking mounted up to the difference between gun and dreadnought.

His mind turned within its limitations to another method of acquiring what he hungered for; at about this stage in his life he discovered how attractive he was to women. His first try had been in the guise of a stockman on Gnarlunga, as that station had an heir who was female, fairly young and fairly pretty. It had been sheer bad luck that in the end she preferred the Pommy jackaroo whose more bizarre exploits were becoming bush legend. From Gnarlunga he went to Bingelly and got a job breaking horses, his eye on the homestead where the aging and unattractive heiress lived with her widowed father. Poor Dot, he had so nearly won her; but in the end she had fallen in with her father’s wishes and married the spry sexagenarian who owned the neighboring property.

These two essays cost him over three years of his life, and he decided twenty months per heiress was far too long and boring. It would suit him better for a while to journey far and wide, continually on the move, until within this much larger sweep he found another likely prospect. Enjoying himself enormously, he began to drove the Western Queensland stock routes, down the Cooper and the Diamantina, the Barcoo and the Bulloo Overflow dwindling through the top corner of western New South Wales. He was thirty, and it was more than time he found the goose who would lay at least part of his golden egg.

Everyone had heard of Drogheda, but Luke’s ears pricked up when he discovered there was an only daughter. No hope she’d inherit, but perhaps they’d want to dower her with a modest 100,000 acres out around Kynuna or Winton. This was nice country around Gilly, but too cramped and forested for him. Luke yearned for the enormity of far western Queensland, where the grass stretched into infinity and trees were mostly something a man remembered as being vaguely eastward. Just the grass, on and on and on with no beginning and no end, where a man was lucky to graze one sheep for every ten acres he owned. Because sometimes there was no grass, just a flat desert of cracked, panting black soil. The grass, the sun, the heat and the flies; to each man his own kind of heaven, and this was Luke O’Neill’s.

He had prised the rest of the Drogheda story out of Jimmy Strong, the AML&F stock-and-station agent who drove him out that first day, and it had been a bitter blow to discover the Catholic Church owned Drogheda. However, he had learned how few and far between female heirs to properties were; when Jimmy Strong went on to say that the only daughter had a nice little cash sum of her own and many doting brothers, he decided to carry on as planned.

But though Luke had long decided his life’s objective lay in 100,000 acres out around Kynuna or Winton, and worked toward it with single-minded zeal, the truth was that at heart he loved hard cash far more than what it might eventually buy him; not the possession of land, nor its inherent power, but the prospect of stockpiling rows of neat figures in his bankbook, in his name. It had’t been Gnarlunga or Bingelly he had wanted so desperately, but their value in hard cash. A man who genuinely wanted to be the boss cocky would never have settled for landless Meggie Cleary. Nor would he have loved the physical act of working hard as did Luke O’Neill.

The dance at the Holy Cross hall in Gilly was the thirteenth dance Luke had taken Meggie to in as many weeks. How he discovered where they were and how he wangled some of the invitations Meggie was too naive to guess, but regularly on a Saturday he would ask Bob for the keys to the Rolls, and take her somewhere within 150 miles.

Tonight it was cold as she stood by a fence looking across a moonless landscape, and under her feet she could feel the crunch of frost. Winter was coming. Luke’s arm came around her and drew her in to his side.

“You’re cold,” he said. “I’d better get you home.”

“No, it’s all right now, I’m getting warm,” she answered breathlessly.

She felt a change in him, a change in the arm held loosely and impersonally across her back. But it was nice to lean against him, to feel the warmth radiating from his body, the different construction of his frame. Even through her cardigan she was conscious of his hand, moving now in small, caressing circles, a tentative and questioning massage. If at this stage she announced she was cold he would stop; if she said nothing, he would take it as tacit permission to proceed. She was young, she wanted so badly to savor love properly. This was the only man outside of Ralph who interested her, so why not see what his kisses were like? Only let them be different! Let them not be like Ralph’s kisses!

Taking her silence as acquiescence, Luke put his other hand on her shoulder, turned her to face him, and bent his head. Was that how a mouth really felt? Why, it was no more than a sort of pressure! What was she supposed to do to indicate liking? She moved her lips under his and at once wished she had not. The pushing down increased; he opened his mouth wide, forced her lips apart with his teeth and tongue, and ran the tongue around the inside of her mouth. Revolting. Why had it seemed so different when Ralph kissed her? She hadn’t been aware then of how wet and faintly nauseating it was; she hadn’t seemed to think at all, only open to him like a casket when the well-known hand touches a secret spring. What on earth was he doing? Why did her body jump so, cling to him when her mind wanted badly to pull away?

Luke had found the sensitive spot on her side, and kept his fingers on it to make her writhe; so far she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Breaking the kiss, he put his mouth hard against the side of her neck. She seemed to like that better, her hands came up around him and she gasped, but when he slid his lips down her throat at the same time as his hand attempted to push her dress off her shoulder, she gave him a sharp shove and stepped quickly away.

“That’s enough, Luke!”

The episode had disappointed her, half-repelled her. Luke was very aware of it as he helped her into the car and rolled a much-needed cigarette. He rather fancied himself as a lover, none of the girls so far had ever complained—but then they hadn’t been ladies like Meggie. Even Dot MacPherson, the Bingelly heiress, richer by far than Meggie, was as rough as bags, no posh Sydney boarding school and all that crap. In spite of his looks Luke was about on a par with the average rural workingman when it came to sexual experience; he knew little of the mechanics beyond what he liked himself, and he knew nothing of the theory. The numerous girls he had made love to were nothing loath to assure him they liked it, but that meant he had to rely on a certain amount of personal information, not always honest, either. A girl went into any affair hoping for marriage when the man was as attractive and hardworking as Luke, so a girl was as likely as not to lie her head off to please him. And nothing pleased a man more than being told he was the best ever. Luke never dreamed how many men aside from himself had been fooled with that one.

Still thinking about old Dot, who had given in and done as her father wanted after he locked her in the shearers’ barracks for a week with a fly-blown carcass, Luke mentally shrugged his shoulders. Meggie was going to be a tough nut to crack and he couldn’t afford to frighten or disgust her. Fun and games would have to wait, that was all. He’d woo her the way she obviously wanted, flowers and attention and not too much slap-and-tickle.

For a while an uncomfortable silence reigned, then Meggie sighed and slumped back in her seat.

“I’m sorry, Luke.”

“I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Oh, no, you didn’t offend me, truly! I suppose I’m not very used to it…. I was frightened, not offended.”

“Oh, Meghann!” He took one hand off the wheel and put it over her clasped ones. “Look, don’t worry about it. You’re a bit of a girl and I went too fast. Let’s forget it.”

“Yes, let’s she said.

“Didn’t he kiss you?” Luke asked curiously.

“Who?’

Was there fear in her voice? But why should there be fear in her voice? “You said you’d been in love once, so I thought you knew the ropes. I’m sorry, Meghann. I should have realized that stuck all the way out here in a family like yours, what you meant was you had a schoolgirl crush on some bloke who never noticed you.”

Yes, yes, yes! Let him think that! “You’re quite right, Luke; it was just a schoolgirl crush.”

Outside the house he drew her to him again and gave her a gentle, lingering kiss without any open-mouth tongue business. She didn’t respond exactly, but clearly she liked it; he went off to his guesthouse more satisfied that he hadn’t ruined his chances.

Meggie dragged herself to bed and lay looking up at the soft round halo the lamp cast on the ceiling. Well, one thing had been established: there was nothing in Luke’s kisses to remind her of Ralph’s. And once or twice toward the end she had felt a flicker of dismayed excitement, when he had dug his fingers into her side and when he had kissed her neck. No use equating Luke with Ralph, and she wasn’t sure anymore that she wanted to try. Better forget Ralph; he couldn’t be her husband. Luke could.

The second time Luke kissed her Meggie behaved quite differently. They had been to a wonderful party on Rudna Hunish, the limit of the territorial boundary Bob had drawn around their jaunts, and the evening had gone well from its beginning. Luke was in his best form, joking so much on the way out he kept her helpless with laughter, then warmly loving and attentive toward her all through the party. And Miss Carmichael had been so determined to take him away from her! Stepping in where Alastair MacQueen and Enoch Davies feared to go, she attached herself to them and flirted with Luke blatantly, forced him for the sake of good manners to ask her to dance. It was a formal affair, the dancing ballroom style, and the dance Luke gave Miss Carmichael was a slow waltz. But he had come back to Meggie immediately it was over and said nothing, only cast his eyes toward the ceiling in a way which left her in no doubt that to him Miss Carmichael was a bore. And she loved him for it; ever since the day the lady had interfered with her pleasure at the Gilly Show, Meggie had disliked her. She had never forgotten the way Father Ralph had ignored the lady to lift a small girl over a puddle; now tonight Luke showed himself in those same colors. Oh, bravo! Luke, you’re splendid!

It was a very long way home, and very cold. Luke had cajoled a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of champagne out of old Angus MacQueen, and when they were nearly two-thirds of the way home he stopped the car. Heaters in cars were extremely rare in Australia then as now, but the Rolls was equipped with a heater; that night it was very welcome, for the frost lay two inches thick on the ground.

“Oh, isn’t it nice to sit without a coat on a night like this?” Meggie smiled, taking the little silver collapsible cup of champagne Luke gave her, and biting into a ham sandwich.

“Yes, it is. You look so pretty tonight, Meghann.”

What was it about the color of her eyes? Grey wasn’t normally a color he cared for, too anemic, but looking at her grey eyes he could have sworn they held every color in the blue end of the spectrum, violet and indigo and the sky on a rich clear day, deep mossy green, a hint of tawny yellow. And they glowed like soft, half-opaque jewels, framed by those long curling lashes which glittered as if they had been dipped in gold. He reached out and delicately brushed his finger along the lashes of one eye, then solemnly looked down at its tip.

“Why, Luke! What’s the matter?”

“I couldn’t resist seeing for myself that you don’t have a pot of gold powder on your dressing table. Do you know you’re the only girl I’ve ever met with real gold on her eyelashes?”

“Oh!” She touched them herself, looked at her finger, laughed. “So I have! It doesn’t come off at all.” The champagne was tickling her nose and fizzing in her stomach; she felt wonderful.

“And real gold eyebrows that have the same shape as a church roof, and the most beautiful real gold hair… I always expect it to be hard like metal, yet it’s soft and fine like a baby’s…. And skin you must use gold powder on, it shines so…And the most beautiful mouth, just made for kissing…”.

She sat staring at him with that tender pink mouth slightly open, the way it had been on their first meeting; he reached out and took the empty cup from her.

“I think you need a little more champagne,” he said, filling it.

“I must admit this is nice, to stop and give ourselves a little break from the track. And thank you for thinking of asking Mr. MacQueen for the sandwiches and wine.”

The big Rolls engine ticked gently in the silence, warm air pouring almost soundlessly through the vents; two separate kinds of lulling noise. Luke unknotted his tie and pulled it off, opened his shirt collar. Their jackets were on the back seat, too warm for the car.

“Oh, that feels good! I don’t know who invented ties and then insisted a man was only properly dressed when he wore one, but if ever I meet him, I’ll strangle him with his own invention.”

He turned abruptly, lowered his face to hers, and seemed to catch the rounded curve of her lips exactly into his, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; though he didn’t hold her or touch her elsewhere she felt locked to him and let her head follow as he leaned back, drawing her forward onto his chest. His hands came up to clasp her head, the better to work at that dizzying, amazingly responsive mouth, drain it. Sighing, he abandoned himself to feeling nothing else, at home at last with those silky baby’s lips finally fitting his own. Her arm slid around his neck, quivering fingers sank into his hair, the palm of her other hand coming to rest on the smooth brown skin at the base of his throat. This time he didn’t hurry, though he had risen and hardened before giving her the second cup of champagne, just from looking at her. Not releasing her head, he kissed her cheeks, her closed eyes, the curving bones of the orbits beneath her brows, came back to her cheeks because they were so satiny, came back to her mouth because its infantile shape drove him mad, had driven him mad since the day he first saw her.

And there was her throat, the little hollow at its base, the skin of her shoulder so delicate and cool and dry…. Powerless to call a halt, almost beside himself with fear lest she should call a halt, he removed one hand from her head and plucked at the long row of buttons down the back of her dress, slid it off her obedient arms, then the straps of her loose satin slip. Face buried between her neck and shoulder, he passed the tips of his fingers down her bare back, feeling her startled little shivers, the sudden hard points to her breasts. He pushed his face lower in a blind, compulsive touch-search of one cold, cushioned surface, lips parted, pressing down, until they closed over taut ruched flesh. His tongue lingered for a dazed minute, then his hands clutched in agonized pleasure on her back and he sucked, nipped, kissed, sucked…. The old eternal impulse, his particular preference, and it never failed. It was so good, good, good, goooooood! He did not cry out, only shuddered for a wrenching, drenching moment, and swallowed in the depths of his throat.

Like a satiated nursling, he let the nipple pop out of his mouth, formed a kiss of boundless love and gratitude against the side of her breast, and lay utterly still except for the heaves of his breathing. He could feel her mouth in his hair, her hand down inside his shirt, and suddenly he seemed to recollect himself, opened his eyes. Briskly he sat up, pulled her slip straps up her arms, then her dress, and fastened all the buttons deftly.

“You’d better marry me, Meghann,” he said, eyes soft and laughing. “I don’t think your brothers would approve one little bit of what we just did.”

“Yes, I think I’d better too,” she agreed, lids lowered, a delicate flush in her cheeks.

“Let’s tell them tomorrow morning.”

“Why not? The sooner the better.”

“Next Saturday I’ll drive you into Gilly. We’ll see Father Thomas—I suppose you’d like a church wedding—arrange for the banns, and buy an engagement ring.”

“Thank you, Luke.”

Well, that was that. She had committed herself, there could be no turning back. In a few weeks or however long it took to call banns, she would marry Luke O’Neill. She would be…. Mrs. Luke O’Neill! How strange! Why did she say yes? Because he told me I must, he said I was to do it. But why? To remove him from danger? To protect himself, or me? Ralph de Bricassart, sometimes I think I hate you….

The incident in the car had been startling and disturbing. Not a bit like that first time. So many beautiful, terrifying sensations. Oh, the touch of his hands! That electrifying tugging at her breast sending vast widening rings clear through her! And he did it right at the moment her conscience had reared its head, told the mindless thing she seemed to have become that he was taking off her clothes, that she must scream, slap him, run away. No longer lulled and half senseless from champagne, from warmth, from the discovery that it was delicious to be kissed when it was done right, his first great gulping taking-in of her breast had transfixed her, stilled common sense, conscience and all thought of flight. Her shoulders came up off his chest, her hips seemed to subside against him, her thighs and that unnamed region at their top rammed by his squeezing hands against a ridge of his body hard as a rock, and she had just wanted to stay like that for the rest of her days, shaken to her soul and yawning empty, wanting…. Wanting what? She didn’t know. In the moment at which he had put her away from him she hadn’t wanted to go, could even have flown at him like a savage. But it had set the seal on her hardening resolve to marry Luke O’Neill. Not to mention that she was convinced he had done to her the thing which made babies start.

No one was very surprised at the news, and no one dreamed of objecting. The only thing which did startle them was Meggie’s adamant refusal to write and tell Bishop Ralph, her almost hysterical rejection of Bob’s idea that they invite Bishop Ralph to Drogheda and have a big house wedding. No, no, no! She had screamed it at them; Meggie who never raised her voice. Apparently she was miffed that he had never come back to see them, maintaining that her marriage was her own business, that if he didn’t have the common decency to come to Drogheda for no reason, she was not going to furnish him with an obligation he could not refuse.

So Fee promised not to say a word in her letters; she seemed not to care one way or the other, nor did she seem interested in Meggie’s choice of a husband. Keeping the books of a station as large as Drogheda was a full-time job. Fee’s records would have served a historian with a perfect description of life on a sheep station, for they didn’t simply consist of figures and ledgers. Every movement of every mob of sheep was rigidly described, the changes of the seasons, the weather each day, even what Mrs. Smith served for dinner. The entry in the log book for Sunday, July 22, 1934, said: Sky clear, no cloud, temperature at dawn 34 degrees. No Mass today. Bob in, Jack out at Murrimbah with 2 stockmen, Hughie out at West Dam with 1 stockman, Beerbarrel droving 3-year wethers from Budgin to Winnemurra. Temperature high at 3 o’clock, 85 degrees. Barometer steady, 30.6 inches. Wind due west. Dinner menu corned beef, boiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage, then plum duff. Meghann Cleary is to marry Mr. Luke O’Neill, stockman, on Saturday August 25 at the Holy Cross Church, Gillanbone. Entered 9 o’clock evening, temperature 45 degrees, moon last quarter.

9

But it was 1930, and Drogheda knew all about the Depression. Men were out of work all over Australia. Those who could stopped paying rent and tying themselves down to the futility of looking for work when there was none. Left to fend alone, wives and children lived in humpies on municipal land and queued for the dole; fathers and husbands had gone tramping. A man stowed his few essentials inside his blanket, tied it with thongs and slung it across his back before setting out on the track, hoping at least for handouts of food from the stations he crossed, if not employment. Humping a bluey through the Outback beat sleeping in the Sydney Domain.

The price of food was low, and Paddy stocked the Drogheda pantries and storehouses to overflowing. A man could always be sure of having his tuckerbag filled when he arrived on Drogheda. The strange thing was that the parade of drifters constantly changed; once full of a good hot meal and loaded with provisions for the track, they made no attempt to remain, but wandered on in search of only they knew what. Not every place was as hospitable or generous as Drogheda by any means, which only added to the puzzle of why men on the track seemed not to want to stay. Perhaps the weariness and the purposelessness of having no home, no place to go, made them continue to drift. Most managed to live, some died and if found were buried before the crows and pigs picked their bones clean. The Outback was a huge place, and lonely.

But Stuart was permanently in residence again, and the shotgun was never far from the cookhouse door. Good stockmen were easy to come by, and Paddy had nine single men on his books in the old jackaroo barracks, so Stuart could be spared from the paddocks. Fee stopped keeping cash lying about, and had Stuart make a camouflaged cupboard for the safe behind the chapel altar. Few of the swaggies were bad men. Bad men preferred to stay in the cities and the big country towns, for life on the track was too pure, too lonely and scant of pickings for bad men. Yet no one blamed Paddy for not wanting to take chances with his women; Drogheda was a very famous name, and might conceivably attract what few undesirables there were on the track.

That winter brought bad storms, some dry, some wet, and the following spring and summer brought rain so heavy that Drogheda grass grew lusher and longer than ever.

Jims and Patsy were plowing through their correspondence lessons at Mrs. Smith’s kitchen table, and chattered now of what it would be like when it was time to go to Riverview, their boarding school. But Mrs. Smith would grow so sharp and sour at such talk that they learned not to speak of leaving Drogheda when she was within hearing distance.

The dry weather came back; the thigh-high grass dried out completely and baked to a silver crisp in a rainless summer. Inured by ten years of the black-soil plains to the hey-ho, up we go, hey-ho, down we go oscillations of drought and flood, the men shrugged and went about each day as if it were the only one that could ever matter. This was true; the main business was essentially to survive between one good year and the next, whenever it might be. No one could predict the rain. There was a man in Brisbane called Inigo Jones who wasn’t bad at long-range weather predictions, using a novel concept of sun spot activity, but out on the black-soil plains no one put much credence in what he had to say. Let Sydney and Melbourne brides petition him for forecasts; the black-soil plainsmen would stick with that old sensation in their bones.

In the winter of 1932 the dry storms came back, along with bitter cold, but the lush grass kept dust to a minimum and the flies weren’t as numerous as usual. No consolation to the freshly shorn sheep, which shivered miserably. Mrs. Dominic O’Rourke, who lived in a wooden house of no particular distinction, adored to entertain visitors from Sydney; one of the highlights of her tour program was paying a call at Drogheda homestead, to show her visitors that even out on the black-soil plains some people lived graciously. And the subject would always turn to those skinny, drowned-rat-looking sheep, left to face the winter minus the five- and six-inch-long fleeces they would have grown by the time summer heat arrived. But, as Paddy said gravely to one such visitor, it made for better wool. The wool was the thing, not the sheep. Not long after he made that statement a letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, demanding prompt parliamentary legislation to end what it called “grazier cruelty.” Poor Mrs. O’Rourke was horrified, but Paddy laughed until his sides ached.

“Just as well the silly bloke never saw a shearer rip up a sheep’s belly and sew it with a baling needle,” he comforted the embarrassed Mrs. O’Rourke. “It’s not worth getting upset about, Mrs. Dominic. Down in the city they don’t know how the other half lives, and they can afford the luxury of doting on their animals as if they were children. Out here it’s different. You’ll never see man, woman or child in need of help go ignored out here, yet in the city those same people who dote on their pets will completely ignore a cry of help from a human being.”

Fee looked up. “He’s right, Mrs. Dominic,” she said. “We all have contempt for whatever there’s too many of. Out here it’s sheep, but in the city it’s people.”

Only Paddy was far afield that day in August when the big storm broke. He got down from his horse, tied the animal securely to a tree and sat beneath a wilga to wait it out. Shivering in fear, his five dogs huddled together near him, while the sheep he had been intending to transfer to another paddock scattered into jumpy little groups trotting aimlessly in all directions. And it was a terrible storm, reserving the worst of its fury until the center of the maelstrom was directly overhead. Paddy stuffed his fingers in his ears, shut his eyes and prayed.

Not far from where he sat with the down-dropping wilga leaves clashing restlessly in the rising wind was a small collection of dead stumps and logs surrounded by tall grass. In the middle of the white, skeletal heap was one massive dead gum, its bare body soaring forty feet toward the night-black clouds, spindling at its top into a sharp, jagged point.

A blossoming blue fire so bright it seared his eyes through their closed lids made Paddy jump to his feet, only to be thrown down like a toy in the heave of a huge explosion. He lifted his face from the earth to see the final glory of the lightning bolt playing shimmering halos of glaring blue and purple all up and down the dead spear of gum tree; then, so quickly he hardly had time to understand what was happening, everything caught fire. The last drop of moisture had long since evaporated from the tissues of that decayed cluster, and the grass everywhere was long and dry as paper. Like some defiant answer of the earth to the sky, the giant tree shot a pillar of flame far beyond its tip, the logs and stumps around it went up at the same moment, and in a circle from around the center great sheets of fire swept in the swirling wind, round and round and round. Paddy had not even time to reach his horse.

The parched wilga caught and the gum resin at its tender heart exploded outward. There were solid walls of fire in every direction Paddy looked; the trees were burning fiercely and the grass beneath his feet was roaring into flames. He could hear his horse screaming and his heart went out to it; he could not leave the poor beast to die tied up and helpless. A dog howled, its howl changing to a shriek of agony almost human. For a moment it flared and danced, a living torch, then subsided into the blazing grass. More howls as the other dogs, fleeing, were enveloped by the racing fire, faster in the gale than anything on foot or wing. A streaming meteor scorched his hair as he stood for a millisecond debating which way was the best to get to his horse; he looked down to see a great cockatoo roasting at his feet.

Suddenly Paddy knew this was the end. There was no way out of the inferno for himself or his horse. Even as he thought it, a desiccated stringybark behind him shot flames in every direction, the gum in it exploding. The skin on Paddy’s arm shriveled and blackened, the hair of his head dimmed at last by something brighter. To die so is indescribable; for fire works its way from outside to in. The last things that go, finally cooked to the point of nonfunction, are brain and heart. His clothes on fire, Paddy capered screaming and screaming through the holocaust. And every awful cry was his wife’s name.

All the other men made it back to Drogheda homestead ahead of the storm, turned their mounts into the stockyard and headed for either the big house or the jackaroo barracks. In Fee’s brightly lit drawing room with a log fire roaring in the cream-and-pink marble fireplace the Cleary boys sat listening to the storm, not tempted these days to go outside and watch it. The beautiful pungent smell of burning eucalyptus wood in the grate and the heaped cakes and sandwiches on the afternoon tea trolley were too alluring. No one expected Paddy to make it in.

About four o’clock the clouds rolled away to the east, and everyone unconsciously breathed easier; somehow it was impossible to relax during a dry storm, even though every building on Drogheda was equipped with a lightning conductor. Jack and Bob got up and went outside to get a little fresh air, they said, but in reality to release pent breath.

“Look!” said Bob, pointing westward.

Above the trees that ringed the Home Paddock round, a great bronze pall of smoke was growing, its margins torn to tattered streamers in the high wind.

“God Jesus!” Jack cried, running inside to the telephone.

“Fire, fire!” he shouted into the receiver, while those still inside the room turned to gape at him, then ran outside to see. “Fire on Drogheda, and a big one!” Then he hung up; it was all he needed to say to the Gilly switch and to those along the line who habitually picked up when the first tinkle came. Though there had not been a big fire in the Gilly district since the Clearys had come to Drogheda, everyone knew the routine.

The boys scattered to get horses, and the stockmen were piling out of the jackaroo barracks, while Mrs. Smith unlocked one of the storehouses and doled out hessian bags by the dozen. The smoke was in the west and the wind was blowing from that direction, which meant the fire would be heading for the homestead. Fee took off her long skirt and put on a pair of Paddy’s pants, then ran with Meggie for the stables; every pair of hands capable of holding a bag would be needed.

In the cookhouse Mrs. Smith stoked up the range firebox and the maids began bringing down huge pots from their ceiling hooks.

“Just as well we killed a steer yesterday,” said the housekeeper. “Minnie, here’s the key to the liquor storehouse. You and Cat fetch all the beer and rum we’ve got, then start making damper bread while I carry on with the stew. And hurry, hurry!”

The horses, unsettled by the storm, had smelled smoke and were hard to saddle; Fee and Meggie backed the two trampling, restive thoroughbreds outside the stable into the yard to tackle them better. As Meggie wrestled with the chestnut mare two swaggies came pounding down the track from the Gilly road.

“Fire, Missus, fire! Got a couple of spare horses? Give us a few bags.”

“Down that way to the stockyards. Dear God, I hope none of you are caught out there!” said Meggie, who didn’t know where her father was.

The two men grabbed hessian bags and water bags from Mrs. Smith; Bob and the men had been gone five minutes. The two swaggies followed, and last to leave, Fee and Meggie rode at a gallop down to the creek, across it and away toward the smoke.

Behind them Tom, the garden rouseabout, finished filling the big water truck from the bore-drain pump, then started the engine. Not that any amount of water short of a downpour from the sky would help put out a fire this big, but he would be needed to keep the bags damp, and the people wielding them. As he shoved the truck down into bottom gear to grind up the far creek bank he looked back for a moment at the empty head stockman’s house, the two vacant houses beyond it; there was the homestead’s soft underbelly, the only place where flammable things came close enough to the trees on the far side of the creek to catch. Old Tom looked westward, shook his head in sudden decision, and managed to get the truck back across the creek and up the near bank in reverse. They’d never stop that fire out in the paddocks; they’d return. On top of the gully and just beside the head stockman’s house, in which he had been camping, he attached the hose to the tank and began saturating the building, then passed beyond it to the two smaller dwellings, hosed them down. This was where he could help the most; keep those three homes so wet they’d never catch.

As Meggie rode beside Fee the ominous cloud in the west grew, and stronger and stronger on the wind came the smell of burning. It was growing dark; creatures fleeing from the west came thicker and thicker across the paddock, kangaroos and wild pigs, frightened sheep and cattle, emus and goannas, rabbits by the thousands. Bob was leaving the gates open, she noticed as she rode from Borehead into Billa-Billa; every paddock on Drogheda had a name. But sheep were so stupid they would blunder into a fence and stop three feet from an open gate, never see it.

The fire had gone ten miles when they reached it, and it was spreading laterally as well, along a front expanding with every second. As the long dry grass and the high wind took it leaping from timber stand to timber stand they sat their frightened, jobbing horses and looked into the west helplessly. No use trying to stop it here; an army couldn’t stop it here. They would have to go back to the homestead and defend that if they could. Already the front was five miles wide; if they didn’t push their weary mounts they too would be caught, and passed. Too bad for the sheep, too bad. But it couldn’t be helped.

Old Tom was still hosing the houses by the creek when they clattered through the thin blanket of water on the ford.

“Good bloke, Tom!” Bob shouted. “Keep it up until it gets too hot to stay, then get out in plenty of time, hear me? No rash heroism; you’re more important than some bits of wood and glass.”

The homestead grounds were full of cars, and more headlights were bouncing and glaring down the road from Gilly; a large group of men stood waiting for them as Bob turned into the horse yards.

“How big is it, Bob?” Martin King asked.

“Too big to fight, I think,” said Bob despairingly. “I reckon it’s about five miles wide and in this wind it’s traveling almost as fast as a horse can gallop. I don’t know if we can save the homestead, but I think Horry ought to get ready to defend his place. He’s going to get it next, because I don’t see how we can ever stop it.”

“Well, we’re overdue for a big fire. The last big one was in 1919. I’ll organize a party to go to Beel-Beel, but there are plenty of us and more coming. Gilly can put out close to five hundred men to fight a fire. Some of us will stay here to help. Thank God I’m west of Drogheda is all I can say.”

Bob grinned. “You’re a bloody comfort, Martin.”

Martin looked around. “Where’s your father, Bob?”

“West of the fire, like Bugela. He was out in Wilga mustering some ewes for the lambing, and Wilga’s at least five miles west of where the fire started, I reckon.”

“No other men you’re worried about?”

“Not today, thank heavens.”

In a way it was like being in a war, Meggie thought as she entered the house: a controlled speed, a concern for food and drink, the keeping up of one’s strength and courage. And the threat of imminent disaster. As more men arrived they went to join those already in the Home Paddock, cutting down the few trees that had sprung up close to the creek bank, and clearing away any overlong grass on the perimeter. Meggie remembered thinking when she first arrived on Drogheda how much prettier the Home Paddock might have been, for compared to the wealth of timber all around it, it was bare and bleak. Now she understood why. The Home Paddock was nothing less than a gigantic circular firebreak.

Everyone talked of the fires Gilly had seen in its seventy-odd years of existence. Curiously enough, fires were never a major threat during prolonged drought, because there wasn’t sufficient grass then to keep a fire going far. It was times like this, a year or two after heavy rain had made the grass grow so long and tinder-lush, that Gilly saw its big fires, the ones which sometimes burned out of control for hundreds of miles.

Martin King had taken charge of the three hundred men remaining to defend Drogheda. He was the senior grazier of the district, and had fought fires for fifty years.

“I’ve got 150,000 acres on Bugela,” he said, “and in 1905 I lost every sheep and every tree on the place. It took me fifteen years to recover, and I thought for a while I wouldn’t, because wool wasn’t fetching much in those days, nor was beef.”

The wind was still howling, the smell of burning was everywhere. Night had fallen, but the western sky was lit to unholy brilliance and lowering smoke was beginning to make them cough. Not long afterward they saw the first flames, vast tongues leaping and writhing a hundred feet into the smoke, and a roaring came to their ears like a huge crowd overexcited at a football game. The trees on the western side of the timber ringing the Home Paddock caught and went up in a solid sheet of fire; as Meggie watched petrified from the homestead veranda she could see little pygmy silhouettes of men outlined against them, jumping and cavorting like anguished souls in Hell.

“Meggie, will you get in here and stack those plates on the sideboard, girl! We’re not at a picnic, you know!” came her mother’s voice. She turned away reluctantly.

Two hours later the first relay of exhausted men staggered in to snatch food and drink, gather up their waning strength to go back and fight on. For this had the station women toiled, to make sure there was stew and damper bread, tea and rum and beer aplenty, even for three hundred men. In a fire, everyone did what he or she was best equipped to do, and that meant the women cooked to keep up the superior physical strength of the men. Case after case of liquor emptied and was replaced by new cases; black from soot and reeling with fatigue, the men stood to drink copiously and stuff huge chunks of damper into their mouths, gobble down a plateful of stew when it had cooled, gulp a last tumbler of rum, then out again to the fire.

In between trips to the cookhouse Meggie watches the fire, awed and terrified. In its way it had a beauty beyond the beauty of anything earthly, for it was thing of the skies, of suns so far away their light camp coldly, of God and the Devil. The front had galloped on eastward, they were completely surrounded now and Meggie could pick out details the undefined holocaust of the front did not permit. Now there were black and orange and red and white and yellow; a tall tree in black silhouette rimmed with an orange crust that simmered and glowered; red embers floating and pirouetting like frolicsome phantoms in the air above, yellow pulsations from the exhausted hearts of burned-out trees; a shower of spinning crimson sparks as a gum exploded; sudden licks of orange-and-white flames from something that had resisted until now, and finally yielded its being to the fire. Oh, yes, it was beautiful in the night; she would carry the memory of it all her life.

A sudden increase in the wind velocity sent all the women up the wistaria boughs onto the silver iron roof muffled in bags, for all the men were out in the Home Paddock. Armed with wet bags, their hands and knees scorched even through the bags they wore, they beat out embers on the frying roof, terrified the iron might give way under the coals, drop flaming pieces down into the wooden struts below. But the worst of the fire was ten miles eastward on Beel-Beel.

Drogheda homestead was only three miles from the eastern boundary of the property, it being closest to Gilly. Beel-Beel adjoined it, and beyond that farther east lay Narrengang. When the wind picked up from forty to sixty miles an hour the whole district knew nothing but rain could prevent the fire burning on for weeks, and laying waste to hundreds of square miles of prime land.

Through the worst of the blaze the houses by the creek had endured, with Tom like a man possessed filling his tank truck, hosing, filling again, hosing again. But the moment the wind increased the houses went up, and Tom retreated in the truck, weeping.

“You’d better get down on your knees and thank God the wind didn’t pick up while the front was to the west of us,” said Martin King. “If it had, not only would the homestead have gone, but us as well. God Jesus, I hope they’re all right on Beel-Beel!”

Fee handed him a big glass of neat rum; he was not a young man, but he had fought as long as it was needed, and directed operations with a master’s touch.

“It’s silly,” she said to him, “but when it looked as if it all might go I kept thinking of the most peculiar things. I didn’t think of dying, or of the children, or of this beautiful house in ruins. All I could think of were my sewing basket, my half-done knitting, the box of odd buttons I’d been saving for years, my heart-shaped cake pans Frank made me years ago. How could I survive without them? All the little things, you know, the things which can’t be replaced, or bought in a shop.”

“That’s how most women think, as a matter of fact. Funny, isn’t it, how the mind reacts? I remember in 1905 my wife running back into the house while I yelled after her like a madman, just to get a tambour with a bit of fancywork on it.” He grinned. “But we got out in time, though we lost the house. When I built the new place, the first thing she did was finish the fancywork. It was one of those old-fashioned samplers, you know the sort I mean. And it said ‘Home Sweet Home.’” He put down the empty glass, shaking his head over the strangenes of women. “I must go. Gareth Davies is going to need us on Narrengang, and unless I miss my guess so will Angus on Rudna Hunish.”

Fee whitened. “Oh, Martin! So far away?”

“The word’s out, Fee. Booroo and Bourke are rallying.”

For three days more the fire rampaged eastward on a front that kept widening and widening, then came a sudden heavy fall of rain that lasted for nearly four days, and quenched every last coal. But it had gone over a hundred miles and laid a charred, blackened path twenty miles wide from midway out across Drogheda to the boundary of the last property in the Gillanbone district eastward, Rudna Hunish.

Until it began to rain no one expected to hear from Paddy, for they thought him safely on the far side of the burned zone, cut off from them by heat in the ground and the still-flaring trees. Had the fire not brought the telephone line down, Bob thought they would have got a call from Martin King, for it was logical that Paddy would strike westward for shelter at Bugela homestead. But when the rain had been falling for six hours and there was still no sign of him, they began to worry. For almost four days they had been assuring themselves continually that there was no reason to be anxious, that of course he was just cut off, and had decided to wait until he could head for his own home rather than go to Bugela.

“He ought to be in by now,” said Bob, pacing up and down the drawing room while the others watched; the irony of it was that the rain had brought a dank chill into the air, and once more a bright fire burned in the marble hearth.

“What do you think, Bob?” Jack asked.

“I think it’s high time we went looking for him. He might be hurt, or he might be on foot and facing a long walk home. His horse might have panicked and thrown him, he might be lying somewhere unable to walk. He had food for overnight, but nothing like enough for four days, though he won’t have passed out from starvation yet. Best not to create a fuss just now, so I won’t recall the men from Narrengang. But if we don’t find him by nightfall I’ll ride to Dominic’s and we’ll get the whole district out tomorrow. Lord, I wish those PMG blokes would get a move on with those phone lines!”

Fee was trembling, her eyes feverish, almost savage. “I’ll put on a pair of trousers,” she said. “I can’t bear to sit here waiting.”

“Mum, stay home!” Bob pleaded.

“If he’s hurt it might be anywhere, Bob, and he might be in any sort of condition. You sent the stockmen to Narrengang, and that leaves us mighty short for a search party. If I go paired with Meggie the two of us will be strong enough together to cope with whatever we find, but if Meggie goes on her own she’ll have to search with one of you, and that’s wasting her, not to mentione me.”

Bob gave in. “All right, then. You can have Meggie’s gelding; you rode it to the fire. Everyone take a rifle, and plenty of shells.”

They rode off across the creek and into the heart of that blasted landscape. Not a green or a brown thing was left anywhere, just a vast expanse of soggy black coals, incredibly still steaming after hours of rain. Every leaf of every tree was frizzled to a curling limp string, and where the grass had been they could see little black bundles here and there, sheep caught in the fire, or an occasional bigger mound which had been a steer or a pig. Their tears mingled with the rain on their faces.

Bob and Meggie headed the little procession, Jack and Hughie in the middle, Fee and Stuart bringing up the rear. For Fee and Stuart it was a peaceful progress; they drew comfort from being close together, not talking, each content in the company of the other. Sometimes the horses drew close or shied apart at the sight of some new horror, but it seemed not to affect the last pair of riders. The mud made the going slow and hard, but the charred, matted grass lay like a coir-rope rug on the soil to give the horses a foothold. And every few yards they expected to see Paddy appear over the far flat horizon, but time went on and he never did.

With sinking hearts they realized the fire had begun farther out than first imagined, in Wilga paddock. The storm clouds must have disguised the smoke until the fire had gone quite a long way. The borderland was astonishing. One side of a clearly drawn line was just black, glistening tar, while the other side was the land as they had always known it, fawn and blue and drear in the rain, but alive. Bob stopped and drew back to talk to everyone.

“Well, here’s where we start. I’m going due west from here; it’s the most likely direction and I’m the strongest. Has everyone got plenty of ammunition? Good. If you find anything, three shots in the air, and those who hear must answer with one shot each. Then wait. Whoever fired the three shots will fire three more five minutes later, and keep on firing three shots every five minutes. Those who hear, one shot in answer.

“Jack, you go south along the fire line. Hughie, you go southwest. I’m going west. Mum and Meggie, you go northwest. Stu, follow the fire line due north. And go slowly, everyone, please. The rain doesn’t make it any easier to see far, and there’s a lot of timber out here in places. Call often; he might not see you where he would hear you. But remember, no shots unless you find something, because he didn’t have a gun with him and if he should hear a shot and be out of voice range to answer, it would be dreadful for him.

“Good luck, and God bless.”

Like pilgrims at the final crossroads they straggled apart in the steady grey rain, getting farther and farther away from each other, smaller and smaller, until each disappeared along the appointed path.

Stuart had gone a bare half mile when he noticed that a stand of burned timber drew very close to the fire’s demarcation line. There was a little wilga as black and crinkled as a pickaninny’s mop, and the remains of a great stump standing close to the charred boundary. What he saw was Paddy’s horse, sprawled and fused into the trunk of a big gum, and two of Paddy’s dogs, little black stiff things with all four limbs poking up like sticks. He got down from his horse, boots sinking ankle deep in mud, and took his rifle from its saddle scabbard. His lips moved, praying, as he picked his slippery way across the sticky coals. Had it not been for the horse and the dogs he might have hoped for a swaggie or some down-and-out wayfarer caught, trapped. But Paddy was horsed and had five dogs with him; no one on the track rode a horse or had more than one dog. This was too far inside Drogheda land to think of drovers, or stockmen from Bugela to the west. Farther away were three more incinerated dogs; five altogether, five dogs. He knew he would not find a sixth, nor did he.

And not far from the horse, hidden as he approached by a log, was what had been a man. There could be no mistake. Glistening and shiny in the rain, the black thing lay on its back, and its back was arched like a great bow so that it bent upward in the middle and did not touch the ground except at the buttocks and shoulders. The arms were flung apart and curved at the elbows as if beseeching heaven, the fingers with the flesh dropping off them to reveal charred bones were clawing and grasping at nothing. The legs were splayed apart also but flexed at the knees, and the blob of a head looked up sightless, eyeless at the sky.

For a moment Stuart’s clear, all-seeing gaze rested on his father, and saw not the ruined shell but the man, as he had been in life. He pointed his rifle at the sky, fired a shot, reloaded, fired a second shot, reloaded, let off the third. Faintly in the distance he heard one answering report, then, farther off and very faintly, a second answer. It was then he remembered the closer shot would have come from his mother and sister. They were north-west, he was north. Without waiting the stipulated five minutes, he put another shell in the rifle breech, pointed the gun due south, and fired. A pause to reload, the second shot, reload, the third shot. He put the weapon back on the ground and stood looking south, his head cocked, listening. This time the first answer was from the west, Bob’s shot, the second from Jack or Hughie, and the third from his mother. He sighed in relief; he didn’t want the women reaching him first.

Thus he didn’t see the great wild pig emerge from the trees to the north; he smelled it. As big as a cow, its massive bulk rolled and quivered on short, powerful legs as it drove its head down, raking at the burned wet ground. The shots had disturbed it, and it was in pain. The sparse black hair on one side of its body was singed off and the skin was redly raw; what Stuart smelled as he stared into the south was the delectable odor of bubbled pork skin, just as it is on a roasted joint fresh from the oven and crisp all over the slashed outer husk. Surprised out of the curiously peaceful sorrow he always seemed to have known, his head turned, even as he thought to himself that he must have been here before, that this sodden black place had been etched into some part of his brain on the day of his birth:

Stooping, he groped for the rifle, remembering it wasn’t loaded. The boar stood perfectly still, its little reddened eyes mad with pain, the great yellow tusks sharp and curving upward in a half circle. Stuart’s horse neighed, smelling the beast; the pig’s massive head swung to watch it, then lowered for the charge. While its attention was on the horse Stuart saw his only chance, bent quickly for the rifle and snapped the breech open, his other hand in his jacket pocket for a shell. All around the rain was dropping down, muffling other sounds in its own unchanging patter. But the pig heard the bolt slide back, and at the last moment changed the direction of its charge from the horse to Stuart. It was almost upon him when he got one shot off straight into the beast’s chest, without slowing it down. The tusks slewed up and sideways, and caught him in the groin. He fell, blood appearing like a faucet turned all the way on and saturating his clothes, spurting over the ground.

Turning awkwardly as it began to feel the bullet, the pig came back to gore him again, faltered, swayed, and tottered. The whole of that fifteen-hundred-pound bulk came down across him, and crushed his face into the tarry mud. For a moment his hands clawed at the ground on either side in a frantic, futile struggle to be free; this then was what he had always known, why he had never hoped or dreamed or planned, only sat and drunk of the living world so deeply there had not been time to grieve for his waiting fate. He thought: Mum, Mum! I can’t stay with you, Mum!, even as his heart burst within him.

“I wonder why Stu hasn’t fired again?” Meggie asked her mother as they trotted toward the sound of those two first triple volleys, not able to go any faster in the mud, and desperately anxious.

“I suppose he decided we’d heard,” Fee said. But in the back of her mind she was remembering Stuart’s face as they parted in different directions on the search, the way his hand had gone out to clasp hers, the way he had smiled at her. “We can’t be far away now,” she said, and pushed her mount into a clumsy, sliding canter.

But Jack had got there first, so had Bob, and they headed the women off as they came across the last of the living land toward the place where the bushfire had begun.

“Don’t go in, Mum,” said Bob as she dismounted.

Jack had gone to Meggie, and held her arms.

The two pairs of grey eyes turned, not so much in bewilderment or dread as in knowledge, as if they did not need to be told anything.

“Paddy?” asked Fee in a voice not like her own.

“Yes. And Stu.”

Neither of her sons could look at her.

“Stu? Stu! What do you mean, Stu? Oh, God, what is it, what’s happened? Not both of them—no!”

“Daddy got caught in the fire; he’s dead. Stu must have disturbed a boar, and it charged him. He shot it, but it fell on him as it was dying and smothered him. He’s dead too, Mum.”

Meggie screamed and struggled, trying to break free of Jack’s hands, but Fee stood between Bob’s grimy, bloody ones as if turned to stone, her eyes as glassy as a gazing-ball.

“It is too much,” she said at last, and looked up at Bob with the rain running down her face and her hair in straggling wisps around her neck like golden runnels. “Let me go to them, Bob. I am the wife of one and the mother of one. You can’t keep me away—you have no right to keep me away. Let me go to them.”

Meggie had quietened, and stood within Jack’s arms with her head on his shoulder. As Fee began to walk across the ruins with Bob’s arm around her waist, Meggie looked after them, but she made no move to follow. Hughie appeared out of the dimming rain; Jack nodded toward his mother and Bob.

“Go after them, Hughie, stay with them. Meggie and I are going back to Drogheda, to bring the dray.” He let Meggie go, and helped her onto the chestnut mare. “Come on, Meggie; it’s nearly dark. We can’t leave them out all night in this, and they won’t go until we get back.”

It was impossible to put the dray or anything else wheeled upon the mud; in the end Jack and old Tom chained a sheet of corrugated iron behind two draft horses, Tom leading the team on a stock horse while Jack rode ahead with the biggest lamp Drogheda possessed.

Meggie stayed at the homestead and sat in front of the drawing room fire while Mrs. Smith tried to persuade her to eat, tears running down her face to see the girl’s still, silent shock, the way she did not weep. At the sound of the front door knocker she turned and went to answer it, wondering who on earth had managed to get through the mud, and as always astonished at the speed with which news traveled the lonely miles between the far-flung homesteads.

Father Ralph was standing on the veranda, wet and muddy, in riding clothes and oilskins.

“May I come in, Mrs. Smith?”

“Oh, Father, Father!” she cried, and threw herself into his astounded arms. “How did you know?”

“Mrs. Cleary telegrammed me, a manager-to-owner courtesy I appreciated very much. I got leave to come from Archbishop di Contini-Verchese. What a mouthful! Would you believe I have to say it a hundred times a day? I flew up. The plane bogged as it landed and pitched on its nose, so I knew what the ground was like before I so much as stepped on it. Dear, beautiful Gilly! I left my suitcase with Father Watty at the presbytery and cadged a horse from the Imperial publican, who thought I was crazy and bet me a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label I’d never get through the mud. Oh, Mrs. Smith, don’t cry so! My dear, the world hasn’t come to an end because of a fire, no matter how big and nasty it was!” he said, smiling and patting her heaving shoulders. “Here am I doing my best to make light of it, and you’re just not doing your best to respond. Don’t cry so, please.”

“Then you don’t know,” she sobbed.

“What? Know what? What is it—what’s happened?”

“Mr. Cleary and Stuart are dead.”

His face drained of color; his hands pushed the housekeeper away. “Where’s Meggie?” he barked.

“In the drawing room. Mrs. Cleary’s still out in the paddock with the bodies. Jack and Tom have gone to bring them in. Oh, Father, sometimes in spite of my faith I can’t help thinking God is too cruell Why did He have to take both of them?”

But all Father Ralph had stayed to hear was where Meggie was; he had gone into the drawing room shedding his oilskins as he went, trailing muddy water behind him.

“Meggie!” he said, coming to her and kneeling at one side of her chair, taking her cold hands in his wet ones firmly.

She slipped from the chair and crawled into his arms, pillowed her head on his dripping shirt and closed her eyes, so happy in spite of her pain and grief that she never wanted the moment to end. He had come, it was a vindication of her power over him, she hadn’t failed.

“I’m wet, darling Meggie; you’ll get soaked,” he whispered, his cheek on her hair.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ve come.”

“Yes, I’ve come. I wanted to be sure you were safe, I had a feeling I was needed, I had to see for myself. Oh, Meggie, your father and Stu! How did it happen?”

“Daddy was caught in the fire, and Stu found him. He was killed by a boar; it fell on him after he shot it. Jack and Tom have gone out to bring them in.”

He said no more, but held her and rocked her as if she were a baby until the heat of the fire partially dried his shirt and hair and he felt some of the stiffness drain from her. Then he put his hand beneath her chin, tilted her head until she looked up at him, and without thinking kissed her. It was a confused impulse not rooted in desire, just something he instinctively offered when he saw what lay in the grey eyes. Something apart, a different kind of sacrament. Her arms slid up under his to meet across his back; he could not stop himself flinching, suppress the exclamation of pain.

She drew back a little. “What’s the matter?”

“I must have bruised my ribs when the plane came in. We bogged to the fuselage in good old Gilly mud, so it was a pretty rough landing. I wound up balanced on the back of the seat in front of me.”

“Here, let me see.”

Fingers steady, she unbuttoned the damp shirt and peeled it off his arms, pulled it free of his breeches. Under the surface of the smooth brown skin a purpling ugly patch extended from one side clear across to the other below the rib cage; her breath caught.

“Oh, Ralph! You rode all the way from Gilly with this? How it must have hurt! Do you feel all right? No faintness? You might have ruptured something inside!”

“No, I’m fine, and I didn’t feel it, honestly. I was so anxious to get here, make sure you were all right, that I suppose I simply eliminated it from my mind. If I was bleeding internally I’d have known about it long before now, I expect. God, Meggie, don’t!”

Her head had gone down, she was delicately touching her lips to the bruise, her palms sliding up his chest to his shoulders with a deliberate sensuousness that staggered him. Fascinated, terrified, meaning to free himself at any cost, he pulled her head away; but somehow all he succeeded in doing was having her back in his arms, a snake coiled tightly about his will, strangling it. Pain was forgotten, Church was forgotten, God was forgotten. He found her mouth, forced it open hungrily, wanting more and more of her, not able to hold her close enough to assuage the ghastly drive growing in him. She gave him her neck, bared her shoulders where the skin was cool, smoother and glossier than satin; it was like drowning, sinking deeper and deeper, gasping and helpless. Mortality pressed down on him, a great weight crushing his soul, liberating the bitter dark wine of his senses in a sudden flood. He wanted to weep; the last of his desire trickled away under the burden of his mortality, and he wrenched her arms from about his wretched body, sat back on his heels with his head sunken forward, seeming to become utterly absorbed in watching his hands tremble on his knees. Meggie, what have you done to me, what might you do to me if I let you?

“Meggie, I love you, I always will. But I’m a priest, I can’t…. I just can’t!”

She got to her feet quickly, straightened her blouse, stood looking down at him and smiling a twisted smile which only threw the failed pain in her eyes into greater emphasis.

“It’s all right, Ralph. I’ll go and see if Mrs. Smith can get you something to eat, then I’ll bring you the horse liniment. It’s marvelous for bringing out a bruise; stops the soreness much better than kisses ever could, I daresay.”

“Is the phone working?” he managed to say.

“Yes. They strung a temporary line on the trees and reconnected us a couple of hours ago.”

But it was some minutes after she left him before he could compose himself sufficiently to seat himself at Fee’s escritoire.

“Give me trunks, please, switch. This is Father de Bricassart at Drogheda—Oh, hello, Doreen; still on the switch, I see. Nice to hear your voice, too. One never knows who switch is in Sydney; she’s just a bored voice. I want to put an urgent call through to His Grace the Archbishop Papal Legate in Sydney. His number is XX-2324. And while I’m waiting for Sydney, put me through to Bugela, Doreen.”

There was barely time to tell Martin King what had happened before Sydney was on the line, but one word to Bugela was enough. Gilly would know from him and the eavesdroppers on the party line, and those who wished to brave a ride through Gilly mud would be at the funerals.

“Your Grace? This is Father de Bricassart…. Yes, thank you, I arrived safely, but the plane’s bogged to its fuselage in mud and I’ll have to come back by train…. Mud, Your Grace, m-u-d mud! No, Your Grace, everything up here becomes impassable when it rains. I had to ride from Gillanbone to Drogheda on horseback; that’s the only way one can even try in rain…. That’s why I’m phoning, Your Grace. It was as well I came. I suppose I must have had some sort of premonition…. Yes, things are bad, very bad. Padraic Cleary and his son Stuart are dead, one burned to death in the fire, one smothered by a boar…. A b-o-a-r boar, Your Grace, a wild pig…. Yes, you’re right, one does speak a slightly bizarre English up here.”

All down the faint line he could hear gasps from the listeners, and grinned in spite of himself. One couldn’t yell into the phone that everybody must get off the line—it was the sole entertainment of a mass nature Gilly had to offer its contact-hungry citizens—but if they would only get off the line His Grace might stand a better chance of hearing. “With your permission, Your Grace, I’ll remain to conduct the funerals and make sure the widow and her surviving children are all right…. Yes, your Grace, thank you. I’ll return to Sydney as soon as I can.”

Switch was listening, too; he clicked the lever and spoke again immediately. “Doreen, put me back to Bugela, please.” He talked to Martin King for a few minutes, and decided since it was August and winter-cold to delay the funerals until the day after this coming day. Many people would want to attend in spite of the mud and be prepared to ride to get there, but it was slow and arduous work.

Meggie came back with the horse liniment, but made no offer to rub it on, just handed him the bottle silently. She informed him abruptly that Mrs. Smith was laying him a hot supper in the small dining room in an hour, so he would have time to bathe. He was uncomfortably aware that in some way Meggie thought he had failed her, but he didn’t know why she should think so, or on what basis she had judged him. She knew what he was; why was she angry?

In grey dawnlight the little cavalcade escorting the bodies reached the creek, and stopped. Though the water was still contained within its banks, the Gillan had become a river in full spate, running fast and thirty feet deep. Father Ralph swam his chestnut mare across to meet them, stole around his neck and the instruments of his calling in a saddlebag. While Fee, Bob, Jack, Hughie and Tom stood around, he stripped the canvas off the bodies and prepared to anoint them. After Mary Carson nothing could sicken him; yet he found nothing repugnant about Paddy and Stu. They were both black after their fashion, Paddy from the fire and Stu from suffocation, but the priest kissed them with love and respect.

For fifteen miles the rough sheet of iron had jarred and bounced over the ground behind the team of draft horses, scarring the mud with deep gouges which would still be visible years later, even in the grass of other seasons. But it seemed they could go no farther; the swirling creek would keep them on its far side, with Drogheda only a mile away. They stood staring at the tops of the ghost gums, clearly visible even in the rain.

“I have an idea,” said Bob, turning to Father Ralph. “Father, you’re the only one on a fresh horse; it will have to be you. Ours will only swim the creek once—they’ve got no more in them after the mud and the cold. Go back and find some empty forty-four-gallon drums, and seal their lids shut so they can’t possibly leak or slip off. Solder them if necessary. We’ll need twelve of them, ten if you can’t find more. Tie them together and bring them back across the creek. We’ll lash them under the iron and float it across like a barge.”

Father Ralph did as he was told without question; it was a better idea than any he had to offer. Dominic O’Rourke of Dibban-Dibban had ridden in with two of his sons; he was a neighbor and not far away as distances went. When Father Ralph explained what had to be done they set about it quickly, scouring the sheds for empty drums, tipping chaff and oats out of drums empty of petrol but in use for storage, searching for lids, soldering the lids to the drums if they were rust-free and looked likely to withstand the battering they would get in the water. The rain was still falling, falling. It wouldn’t stop for another two days.

“Dominic, I hate to ask it of you, but when these people come in they’re going to be half dead. We’ll have to hold the funerals tomorrow, and even if the Gilly undertaker could make the coffins in time, we’d never get them out through the mud. Can any of you have a go at making a couple of coffins? I only need one man to swim the creek with me.”

The O’Rourke sons nodded; they didn’t want to see what the fire had done to Paddy or the boar to Stuart.

“We’ll do it, Dad,” said Liam.

Dragging the drums behind their horses, Father Ralph and Dominic O’Rourke rode down to the creek and swam it.

“There’s one thing, Father!” shouted Dominic. “We don’t have to dig graves in this bloody mud! I used to think old Mary was putting on the dog a bit too much when she put a marble vault in her backyard for Michael, but right at this minute if she was here, I’d kiss her!”

“Too right!” yelled Father Ralph.

They lashed the drums under the sheet of iron, six on either side, tied the canvas shroud down firmly, and swam the exhausted draft horses across on the rope which would finally tow the raft. Dominic and Tom sat astride the great beasts, and at the top of the Drogheda-side bank paused, looking back, while those still marooned hooked up the makeshift barge, pushed it to the bank and shoved it in. The draft horses began walking, Tom and Dominic cooeeing shrilly as the raft began to float. It bobbed and wallowed badly, but it stayed afloat long enough to be hauled out safely; rather than waste time dismantling the pontoons, the two impromptu postilions urged their mounts up the track toward the big house, the sheet of iron sliding along on its drums better than it had without them.

There was a ramp up to great doors at the baling end of the shearing shed, so they put the raft and its burden in the huge empty building amid the reeks of tar, sweat, lanolin and dung. Muffled in oilskins, Minnie and Cat had come down from the big house to take first vigil, and knelt one on either side of the iron bier, rosary beads clicking, voices rising and falling in cadences too well known to need the effort of memory.

The house was filling up. Duncan Gordon had arrived from Each-Uisge, Gareth Davies from Narrengang, Horry Hopeton from Beel-Beel, Eden Carmichael from Barcoola. Old Angus MacQueen had flagged down one of the ambling local goods trains and ridden with the engine driver to Gilly, where he borrowed a horse from Harry Gough and rode out with him. He had covered over two hundred miles of mud, one way or another.

“I’m wiped out, Father,” Horry said to the priest later as the seven of them sat in the small dining room eating steak-and-kidney pie. “The fire went through me from one end to the other and left hardly a sheep alive or a tree green. Lucky the last few years have been good is all I can say. I can afford to restock, and if this rain keeps up the grass will come back real quick. But heaven help us from another disaster during the next ten years, Father, because I won’t have anything put aside to meet it.”

“Well, you’re smaller than me, Horry,” Gareth Davies said, cutting into Mrs. Smith’s meltingly light flaky pastry with evident enjoyment. Nothing in the line of disasters could depress a black-soil plainsman’s appetite for long; he needed his food to meet them. “I reckon I lost about half of my acreage, and maybe two-thirds of my sheep, worse luck. Father, we need your prayers.”

“Aye,” said old Angus. “I wasna sae hard hit as wee Horry and Garry, Father, but bad enough for a’ that. I lost sixty thoosand of ma acres, and half ma wee sheep. ’Tis times like this, Father, make me wish I hadna left Skye as a young laddie.”

Father Ralph smiled. “It’s a passing wish, Angus, you know that. You left Skye for the same reason I left Clunamara. It was too small for you.”

“Aye, nae doot. The heather doesna make sic a bonnie blaze as the gums, eh, Father?”

It would be a strange funeral, thought Father Ralph as he looked around; the only women would be Drogheda women, for all the visiting mourners were men. He had taken a huge dose of laudanum to Fee after Mrs. Smith had stripped her, dried her and put her into the big bed she had shared with Paddy, and when she refused to drink it, weeping hysterically, he had held her nose and tipped it ruthlessly down her throat. Funny, he hadn’t thought of Fee breaking down. It had worked quickly, for she hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours. Knowing she was sound asleep, he rested easier. Meggie he kept tabs on; she was out in the cookhouse at the moment helping Mrs. Smith prepare food. The boys were all in bed, so exhausted they could hardly manage to peel off their wet things before collapsing. When Minnie and Cat concluded their stint of the vigil custom demanded because the bodies lay in a deserted, unblessed place, Gareth Davies and his son Enoch were taking over; the others allotted hour-long spans among themselves as they talked and ate.

None of the young men had joined their elders in the dining room. They were all in the cookhouse ostensibly helping Mrs. Smith, but in reality so they could look at Meggie. When he realized this fact Father Ralph was both annoyed and relieved. Well, it was out of their ranks she must choose her husband, as she inevitably would. Enoch Davies was twenty-nine, a “black Welshman,” which meant he was black-haired and very dark-eyed, a handsome man; Liam O’Rourke was twenty-six, sandy-haired and blue-eyed, like his twenty-five-year-old brother Rory; Connor Carmichael was the spit of his sister, older at thirty-two, and very good-looking indeed, if a little arrogant; the pick of the bunch in Father Ralph’s estimation was old Angus’s grandson Alastair, the closest to Meggie in age at twenty-four and a sweet young man, with his grandfather’s beautiful blue Scots eyes and hair already gray, a family trait. Let her fall in love with one of them, marry him, have the children she wanted so badly. Oh, God, my God, if You will do that for me, I’ll gladly bear the pain of loving her, gladly….

No flowers smothered these coffins, and the vases all around the chapel were empty. What blossoms had survived the terrible heat of the fiery air two nights ago had succumbed to the rain, and laid themselves down against the mud like ruined butterflies. Not even a stalk of bottle brush, or an early rose. And everyone was tired, so tired. Those who had ridden the long miles in the mud to show their liking for Paddy were tired, those who had brought the bodies in were tired, those who had slaved to cook and clean were tired, Father Ralph was so tired he felt as if he moved in a dream, eyes sliding away from Fee’s pinched, hopeless face, Meggie’s expression of mingled sorrow and anger, the collective grief of that collective cluster Bob, Jack and Hughie….

He gave no eulogy; Martin King spoke briefly and movingly on behalf of those assembled, and the priest went on into the Requiem immediately. He had as a matter of course brought his chalice, his sacraments and a stole, for no priest stirred without them when he went offering comfort or aid, but he had no vestments with him, and the house possessed none. But old Angus had called in at the presbytery in Gilly on his way, and carried the black mourning garb of a Requiem Mass wrapped in an oilskin across his saddle. So he stood properly attired with the rain hissing against the windows, drumming on the iron roof two stories up.

Then out into it, the grieving rain, across the lawn all browned and scorched by heat, to the little white-railinged cemetery. This time there were pallbearers willing to shoulder the plain rectangular boxes, slipping and sliding in the mud, trying to see where they were going through the rain beating in their eyes. And the little bells on the Chinese cook’s grave tinkled drably: Hee Sing, Hee Sing, Hee Sing.

It got itself over and done with. The mourners departed on their horses, backs hunched inside their oilskins, some of them staring miserably at the prospect of ruin, others thanking God they had escaped death and the fire. And Father Ralph got his few things together, knowing he must go before he couldn’t go.

He went to see Fee, where she sat at the escritoire staring mutely down at her hands.

“Fee, will you be all right?” he asked, sitting where he could see her.

She turned toward him, so still and quenched within her soul that he was afraid, and closed his eyes.

“Yes, Father, I’ll be all right. I have the books to keep, and five sons left—six if you count Frank, only I don’t suppose we can count Frank, can we? Thank you for that, more than I can ever say. It’s such a comfort to me knowing your people are watching out for him, making his life a little easier. Oh, if I could see him, just once!”

She was like a lighthouse, he thought; flashes of grief every time her mind came round to that pitch of emotion which was too great to be contained. A huge flare, and then a long period of nothing.

“Fee, I want you to think about something.”

“Yes, what?” she was dark again.

“Are you listening to me?” he asked sharply, worried and suddenly more frightened than before.

For a long moment he thought she had retreated so far into herself even the harshness of his voice hadn’t penetrated, but up blazed the beacon again, and her lips parted. “My poor Paddy! My poor Stuart! My poor Frank!” she mourned, then got herself under that iron control once more, as if she was determined to elongate her periods of darkness until the light shone no more in her lifetime.

Her eyes roamed the room without seeming to recognize it. “Yes, Father, I’m listening,” she said.

“Fee, what about your daughter? Do you ever remember that you have a daughter?”

The grey eyes lifted to his face, dwelled on it almost pityingly. “Does any woman? What’s a daughter? Just a reminder of the pain, a younger version of oneself who will do all the things one has done, cry the same tears. No, Father. I try to forget I have a daughter—if I do think of her, it is as one of my sons. It’s her sons a mother remembers.”

“Do you cry tears, Fee? I’ve only seen them once.”

“You’ll never see them again, for I’ve finished with tears forever.” Her whole body quivered. “Do you know something, Father? Two days ago I discovered how much I love Paddy, but it was like all of my life—too late. Too late for him, too late for me. If you knew how I wanted the chance to take him in my arms, tell him I loved him! Oh, God, I hope no other human being ever has to feel my pain!”

He turned away from that suddenly ravaged face, to give it time to don its calm, and himself time to cope with understanding the enigma who was Fee.

He said, “No one else can ever feel your pain.”

One corner of her mouth lifted in a stern smile. “Yes. That’s a comfort, isn’t it? It may not be enviable, but my pain is mine.”

“Will you promise me something, Fee?”

“If you like.”

“Look after Meggie, don’t forget her. Make her go to the local dances, let her meet a few young men, encourage her to think of marriage and a home of her own. I saw all the young men eyeing her today. Give her the opportunity to meet them again under happier circumstances than these.”

“Whatever you say, Father.”

Sighing, he left her to the contemplation of her thin white hands.

Meggie walked with him to the stables, where the Imperial publican’s bay gelding had been stuffing itself on hay and bran and dwelling in some sort of equine heaven for two days. He flung the publican’s battered saddle on its back and bent to strap the surcingle and girth while Meggie leaned against a bale of straw and watched him.

“Father, look what I found,” she said as he finished and straightened. She held out her hand, in it one pale, pinkish-gray rose. “It’s the only one. I found it on a bush under the tank stands, at the back. I suppose it didn’t get the same heat in the fire, and it was sheltered from the rain. So I picked it for you. It’s something to remember me by.”

He took the half-open bloom from her, his hand not quite steady, and stood looking down at it. “Meggie, I need no reminder of you, not now, not ever. I carry you within me, you know that. There’s no way I could hide it from you, is there?”

“But sometimes there’s a reality about a keepsake,” she insisted. “You can take it out and look at it, and remember when you see it all the things you might forget otherwise. Please take it, Father.”

“My name is Ralph,” he said. He opened his little sacrament case and took out the big missal which was his own property, bound in costly mother-of-pearl. His dead father had given it to him at his ordination, thirteen long years ago. The pages fell open at a great thick white ribbon; he turned over several more, laid the rose down, and shut the book upon it. “Do you want a keepsake from me, Meggie, is that it?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t give you one. I want you to forget me, I want you to look around your world and find some good kind man, marry him, have the babies you want so much. You’re a born mother. You mustn’t cling to me, it isn’t right. I can never leave the Church, and I’m going to be completely honest with you, for your own sake. I don’t want to leave the Church, because I don’t love you the way a husband will, do you understand? Forget me, Meggie!”

“Won’t you kiss me goodbye?”

For answer he pulled himself up on the publican’s bay and walked it to the door before putting on the publican’s old felt hat. His blue eyes flashed a moment, then the horse moved out into the rain and slithered reluctantly up the track toward Gilly. She did not attempt to follow him, but stayed in the gloom of the damp stable, breathing in the smells of horse dung and hay; it reminded her of the barn in New Zealand, and of Frank.

Thirty hours later Father Ralph walked into the Archbishop Papal Legate’s chamber, crossed the room to kiss his master’s ring, and flung himself wearily into a chair. It was only as he felt those lovely, omniscient eyes on him that he realized how peculiar he must look, why so many people had stared at him since he got off the train at Central. Without remembering the suitcase Father Watty Thomas was keeping for him at the presbytery, he had boarded the night mail with two minutes to spare and come six hundred miles in a cold train clad in shirt, breeches and boots, soaking wet, never noticing the chill. So he looked down at himself with a rueful smile, then across at the Archbishop.

“I’m sorry, Your Grace. So much has happened I didn’t think how odd I must look.”

“Don’t apologize, Ralph.” Unlike his predecessor, he preferred to call his secretary by his Christian name. “I think you look very romantic and dashing. Only a trifle too secular, don’t you agree?”

“Very definitely on the secular bit, anyway. As to the romantic and dashing, Your Grace, it’s just that you’re not used to seeing what is customary garb in Gillanbone.”

“My dear Ralph, if you took it into your head to don sackcloth and ashes, you’d manage to make yourself seem romantic and dashing! The riding habit suits you, though, it really does. Almost as well as a soutane, and don’t waste your breath telling me you aren’t very well aware it becomes you more than a priest’s black suit. You have a peculiar and a most attractive way of moving, and you have kept your fine figure; I think perhaps you always will. I also think that when I am recalled to Rome I shall take you with me. It will afford me great amusement to watch your effect on our short, fat Italian prelates. The beautiful sleek cat among the plump startled pigeons.”

Rome! Father Ralph sat up in his chair.

“Was it very bad, my Ralph?” the Archbishop went on, smoothing his beringed milky hand rhythmically across the silky back of his purring Abyssinian cat.

“Terrible, Your Grace.”

“These people, you have a great fondness for them.”

“Yes.”

“And do you love all of them equally, or do you love some of them more than others?”

But Father Ralph was at least as wily as his master, and he had been with him now long enough to know how his mind worked. So he parried the smooth question with deceptive honesty, a trick he had discovered lulled His Grace’s suspicions at once. It never occurred to that subtle, devious mind that an outward display of frankness might be more mendacious than any evasion.

“I do love all of them, but as you say, some more than others. It’s the girl Meggie I love the most. I’ve always felt her my special responsibility, because the family is so son-oriented they forget she exists.”

“How old is this Meggie?”

“I’m not sure exactly. Oh, somewhere around twenty, I imagine. But I made her mother promise to lift her head out of her ledgers long enough to make sure the girl got to a few dances, met a few young men. She’s going to waste her life away stuck on Drogheda, which is a shame.”

He spoke nothing but the truth; the Archbishop’s ineffably sensitive nose sniffed it out at once. Though he was only three years his secretary’s senior, his career within the Church hadn’t suffered the checks Ralph’s had, and in many ways he felt immeasurably older than Ralph would ever be; the Vatican sapped one of some vital essence if one was exposed to it very early, and Ralph possessed that vital essence in abundance.

Relaxing his vigilance somewhat, he continued to watch his secretary and resumed his interesting game of working out precisely what made Father Ralph de Bricassart tick. At first he had been sure there would be a fleshly weakness, if not in one direction, in another. Those stunning good looks and the accompanying body must have made him the target of many desires, too much so to preserve innocence or unawareness. And as time went on he had found himself half right; the awareness was undoubtedly there, but with it he began to be convinced was a genuine innocence. So whatever Father Ralph burned for, it was not the flesh. He had thrown the priest together with skilled and quite irresistible homosexuals if one was a homosexual; no result. He had watched him with the most beautiful women in the land; no result. Not a flicker of interest or desire, even when he was not in the slightest aware he was under observation. For the Archbishop did not always do his own watching, and when he employed minions it was not through secretarial channels.

He had begun to think Father Ralph’s weaknesses were pride in being a priest, and ambition; both were facets of personality he understood, for he possessed them himself. The Church had places for ambitious men, as did all great and self-perpetuating institutions. Rumor had it that Father Ralph had cheated these Clearys he purported to love so much out of their rightful inheritance. If indeed he had, he was well worth hanging on to. And how those wonderful blue eyes had blazed when he mentioned Rome! Perhaps it was time he tried another gambit. He poked forward a conversational pawn lazily, but his eyes under hooded lids were very keen.

“I had news from the Vatican while you were away, Ralph,” he said, shifting the cat slightly. “My Sheba, you are selfish; you make my legs numb.”

“Oh?” Father Ralph was sinking down in his chair, and his eyes were having a hard time staying open.

“Yes, you may go to bed, but not before you have heard my news. A little while ago I sent a personal and private communication to the Holy Father, and an answer came back today from my friend Cardinal Monteverdi—I wonder if he is a descendant of the Renaissance musician? Why do I never remember to ask him when I see him? Oh, Sheba, must you insist upon digging in your claws when you are happy?”

“I’m listening, Your Grace, I haven’t fallen asleep yet,” said Father Ralph, smiling. “No wonder you like cats so much. You’re one yourself, playing with your prey for your own amusement.” He snapped his fingers. “Here, Sheba, leave him and come to me! He is unkind.”

The cat jumped down off the purple lap immediately, crossed the carpet and leaped delicately onto the priest’s knees, stood waving its tail and sniffing the strange smells of horses and mud, entranced. Father Ralph’s blue eyes smiled into the Archbishop’s brown ones, both half closed, both absolutely alert.

“How do you do that?” demanded the Archbishop. “A cat will never go to anyone, but Sheba goes to you as if you gave her caviar and valerian. Ingrate animal.”

“I’m waiting, Your Grace.”

“And you punish me for it, taking my cat from me. All right, you have won, I yield. Do you ever lose? An interesting question. You are to be congratulated, my dear Ralph. In future you will wear the miter and the cope, and be addressed as My Lord, Bishop de Bricassart.”

That brought the eyes wide open! he noted with glee. For once Father Ralph didn’t attempt to dissimulate, or conceal his true feelings. He just beamed.

Three

1929–1932
Paddy

8

The new year came in with Angus MacQueen’s annual Hogmanay party on Rudna Hunish, and still the move to the big house had not been accomplished. It wasn’t something done overnight, between packing over seven years’ accumulation of everyday artifacts, and Fee’s declaration that the big house drawing room at least be finished first. No one was in the slightest hurry, though everyone was looking forward to it. In some respects the big house would prove no different: it lacked electricity and the flies populated it just as thickly. But in summer it was about twenty degrees cooler than outside, from the thickness of its stone walls and the ghost gums shading its roof. Also, the bathhouse was a true luxury, having hot water all winter from pipes which ran up the back of the vast fuel stove in the cookhouse next door, and every drop in its pipes was rain water. Though baths and showers had to be taken in this large structure with its ten separate cubicles, the big house and all the smaller houses were liberally endowed with indoor water-closet toilets, an unheard-of degree of opulence envious Gilly residents had been caught calling sybaritism. Aside from the Hotel Imperial, two pubs, the Catholic presbytery and the convent, the Gillanbone district survived on out-houses. Except Drogheda homestead, thanks to its enormous number of tanks and roofs to catch rain water. The rules were strict: no undue flushing, and plenty of sheep-dip disinfectant. But after holes in the ground, it was heaven.

Father Ralph had sent Paddy a check for five thousand pounds at the beginning of the preceding December, to be going on with, his letter said; Paddy handed it to Fee with a dazed exclamation.

“I doubt I’ve managed to earn this much in all my working days,” he said.

“What shall I do with it?” Fee asked, staring at it and then looking up t him, eyes blazing. “Money, Paddy! Money at last, do you realize it? Oh, I don’t care about Auntie Mary’s thirteen million pounds—there’s nothing real about so much. But this is real! What shall I do with it?”

“Spend it,” said Paddy simply. “A few new clothes for the children and yourself? And maybe there are things you’d like to buy for the big house? I can’t think of anything else we need.”

“Nor can I, isn’t it silly?” Up got Fee from the breakfast table, beckoning Meggie imperiously. “Come on, girl, we’re walking up to the big house to look at it.”

Though at that time three weeks had elapsed, since the frantic week following Mary Carson’s death, none of the Clearys had been near the big house. But now Fee’s visit more than made up for their previous reluctance. From one room to another she marched with Meggie, Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat in attendance, more animated than a bewildered Meggie had ever known her. She muttered to herself continually; this was dreadful, that was an absolute horror, was Mary color-blind, did she have no taste at all?

In the drawing room Fee paused longest, eyeing it expertly. Only the reception room exceeded it in size, for it was forty feet long and thirty wide, and had a fifteen-foot ceiling. It was a curious mixture of the best and the worst in its decoration, painted a uniform cream which had yellowed and did nothing to emphasize the magnificent moldings on the ceiling or the carved paneling on the walls. The enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that marched uninterruptedly for forty feet along the veranda side were heavily curtained in brown velvet, casting a deep gloom over the dingy brown chairs, two stunning malachite benches and two equally beautiful benches in Florentine marble, and a massive fireplace of cream marble veined in deep pink. On the polished teak floor three Aubusson carpets had been squared with geometrical precision, and a Waterford chandelier six feet long touched the ceiling, its chain bunched round it.

“You are to be commended, Mrs. Smith,” Fee pronounced. “It’s positively awful, but spotlessly clean. I shall give you something worth caring for. Those priceless benches without anything to set them off—it’s a shame! Since the day I saw this room, I’ve longed to make it into something every person who walks into it will admire, and yet comfortable enough to make every person who walks into it want to remain.”

Mary Carson’ desk was a Victorian hideousness; Fee walked to it and the phone which stood upon it, flicking its gloomy wood contemptuously. “My escritoire will do beautifully here,” she said. “I’m going to start with this room, and when it’s finished I’ll move up from the creek, not before. Then at least we’ll have one place where we can congregate without being depressed.” She sat down and plucked the receiver off its hook.

While her daughter and her servants stood in a small bewildered huddle, she proceeded to set Harry Gough in motion. Mark Foys would send fabric samples on the night mail; Nock & Kirbys would send paint samples; Grace Brothers would send wallpaper samples; these and other Sydney stores would send catalogues specially compiled for her, describing their lines of furnishings. Laughter in his voice, Harry guaranteed to produce a competent upholsterer and a team of painters capable of doing the meticulous work Fee demanded. Good for Mrs. Cleary! She was going to sweep Mary Carson right out of the house.

The phoning finished, everyone was directed to rip down the brown velvet curtains at once. Out they went onto the rubbish heap in an orgy of wastefulness Fee supervised personally, even putting the torch to them herself.

“We don’t need them,” she said, “and I’m not going to inflict them on the Gillanbone poor.”

“Yes, Mum,” said Meggie, paralyzed.

“We’re not going to have any curtains,” said Fee, not at all disturbed over a flagrant breach of the decorating customs of the time. “The veranda’s far too deep to let the sun come in directly, so why do we need curtains? I want this room to be seen.”

The materials arrived, so did the painters and the upholsterer; Meggie and Cat were sent up ladders to wash and polish the top windows while Mrs. Smith and Minnie coped with the bottom ones and Fee strode around watching everything with an eagle eye.

By the second week in January it was all done, and somehow of course the news leaked out on the party lines. Mrs. Cleary had made the Drogheda drawing room into a palace, and wouldn’t it be only the civil thing for Mrs. Hopeton to accompany Mrs. King and Mrs. O’Rourke on a welcome-to-the-big-house visit?

No one argued that the result of Fee’s efforts was absolute beauty. The cream Aubusson carpets with their faded bunches of pink and red roses and green leaves had been strewn rather haphazardly around the mirror-finished floor. Fresh cream paint covered the walls and the ceiling, every molding and carving pains-takingly picked out in gilt, but the huge oval-shaped flat spaces in the paneling had been papered with faded black silk bearing the same bunches of roses as the three carpets, like stilted Japanese paintings in cream and gilt surrounds. The Waterford chandelier had been lowered until its bottom pendant chimed a bare six and a half feet from the floor, every prism of its thousands polished to a flashing rainbow, and its great brass chain tethered to the wall instead of being bunched up. On spindly cream-and-gilt tables Waterford lamps stood next to Waterford ashtrays and Waterford vases stuffed with cream and pink roses; all the big comfortable chairs had been re-covered in cream watered silk and placed in small cozy groupings with large ottomans drawn up to each one invitingly; in one sunny corner stood the exquisite old spinet with an enormous vase of cream and pink roses on it. Above the fireplace hung the portrait of Fee’s grandmother in her pale pink crinoline, and facing her at the other end of the room was an even larger portrait of a youngish, red-haired Mary Carson, face like the youngish Queen Victoria, in a stiff black gown fashionably bustled.

“All right,” said Fee, “now we can move up from the creek. I’ll do the other rooms at my leisure. Oh, isn’t it lovely to have money and a decent home to spend it on?”

About three days before they moved, so early in the morning the sun had not yet risen, the roosters in the fowl yard were cock-a-doodling joyously.

“Miserable wretches,” said Fee, wrapping old newspapers around her china. “I don’t know what they think they’ve done to crow about. Not an egg in the place for breakfast, and all the men at home until we finish moving. Meggie, you’ll have to go down to the chook yard for me; I’m busy.” She scanned a yellowed sheet of the Sydney Morning Herald, snorting over an advertisement for wasp-waisted stays. “I don’t know why Paddy insists we get all the newspapers; no one ever has time to read them. They just pile up too fast to burn in the stove. Look at this! It’s older than our tenancy of the house. Well, at least they’re handy for packing.”

It was nice to see her mother so cheerful, Meggie thought as she sped down the back steps and across the dusty yard. Though everyone was naturally looking forward to living in the big house, Mum seemed to hunger for it as if she could remember what living in a big house was like. How clever she was, what perfect taste she had! Things no one had ever realized before, because there had been neither time nor money to bring them out. Meggie hugged herself with excitement; Daddy had sent in to the Gilly jeweler and used some of the five thousand pounds to buy Mum a real pearl choker and real pearl earrings, only these had little diamonds in them as well. He was going to give them to her at their first dinner in the big house. Now that she had seen her mother’s face freed of its habitual dourness, she could hardly wait for the expression it would wear when she received her pearls. From Bob to the twins, the children were agog for that moment, because Daddy had shown them the big flat leather case, opened it to reveal the milky opalescent beads on their black velvet bed. Their mother’s blossoming happiness had affected them deeply; it was like seeing the start of a good drenching rain. Until now they had never quite understood how unhappy she must have been all the years they had known her.

The chook yard was huge, and held four roosters and upward of forty hens. At night they inhabited a tumble-down shed, its rigorously swept floor lined around the edges with straw-filled orange crates for laying, and its rear crossed by perches of various heights. But during the day the chooks strutted clucking around a large, wire-netted run. When Meggie opened the run gate and squeezed inside, the birds clustered about her greedily, thinking they would be fed, but since Meggie fed them in the evenings she laughed at their silly antics and stepped through them into the shed.

“Honestly, what a hopeless lot of chookies you are!” she lectured them severely as she poked in the nests. “Forty of you, and only fifteen eggs! Not enough for breakfast, let alone a cake. Well, I’m warning you here and now—if you don’t do something about it soon, the chopping block for the lot of you, and that applies to the lords of the coop as well as wives, so don’t spread your tails and ruffle up your necks as if I’m not including you, gentlemen!”

With the eggs held carefully in her apron, Meggie ran back to the kitchen, singing.

Fee was sitting in Paddy’s chair staring at a sheet of Smith’s Weekly, her face white, her lips moving. Inside Meggie could hear the men moving about, and the sounds of six-year-old Jims and Patsy laughing in their cot; they were never allowed up until after the men had gone.

“What’s the matter, Mum?” Meggie asked.

Fee didn’t answer, only sat staring in front of her with beads of sweat along her upper lip, eyes stilled to a desperately rational pain, as if within herself she was marshaling every resource she possessed not to scream.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Meggie called sharply, frightened.

The tone of her voice brought him out still fastening his flannel undershirt, with Bob, Jack, Hughie and Stu behind him. Meggie pointed wordlessly at her mother.

Paddy’s heart seemed to block his throat. He bent over Fee, his hand picking up one limp wrist. “What is it, dear?” he asked in tones more tender than any of his children had ever heard him use; yet somehow they knew they were the tones he used with her when they were not around to hear.

She seemed to recognize that special voice enough to emerge from her shocked trance, and the big grey eyes looked up into his face, so kind and worn, no longer young.

“Here,” she said, pointing at a small item of news toward the bottom of the page.

Stuart had gone to stand behind his mother, his hand lightly on her shoulder; before he started to read the article Paddy glanced up at his son, into the eyes so like Fee’s, and he nodded. What had roused him to jealousy in Frank could never do so in Stuart; as if their love for Fee bound them tightly together instead of separating them.

Paddy read out loud, slowly, his tone growing sadder and sadder. The little headline said: BOXER RECEIVES LIFE SENTENCE.

Francis Armstrong Cleary, aged 26, professional boxer, was convicted today in Goulburn District Court of the murder of Ronald Albert Cumming, aged 32, laborer, last July. The jury reached its verdict after only ten minutes’ deliberation, recommending the most severe punishment the court could mete out. It was, said Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally, a simple open-and-closed case. Cumming and Cleary had quarreled violently in the public bar of the Harbor Hotel on July 23rd. Later the same night Sergeant Tom Beardsmore of the Goulburn police, accompanied by two constables, was called to the Harbor Hotel by its proprietor, Mr. James Ogilvie. In the lane behind the hotel the police discovered Cleary kicking at the head of the insensible Cumming. His fists were bloodstained and bore tufts of Cumming’s hair. When arrested Cleary was drunk but lucid. He was charged with assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm, but the charge was amended to murder after Cumming died of brain injuries in the Goulburn District Hospital next day.

Mr. Arthur Whyte, K.C., entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but four medical witnesses for the Crown stated unequivocally that under the provisions of the M’Naghten rules Cleary could not be called insane. In addressing the jury, Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally told them there was no question of guilt or innocence, the verdict was clearly guilty, but he requested them to take time considering their recommendation for either clemency or severity, as he would be guided by their opinion. When sentencing Cleary, Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally called his act “subhuman savagery,” and regretted that the drunken unpremeditated nature of the crime precluded hanging, as he regarded Cleary’s hands as a weapon quite as deadly as a gun or knife. Cleary was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, the sentence to be served in Goulburn Gaol, this institution being one designed for violently disposed prisoners. Asked if he had anything so say, Cleary answered, “Just don’t tell my mother.”

Paddy looked at the top of the page to see the date: December 6, 1925. “It happened over three years ago,” he said helplessly.

No one answered him or moved, for no one knew what to do; from the front of the house came the gleeful laughter of the twins, their high voices raised in chatter.

“‘Just—don’t—tell my mother,’” said Fee numbly. “And no one did! Oh, God! My poor, poor Frank!”

Paddy wiped the tears from his face with the back of his free hand, then squatted down in front of her, patting her lap gently.

“Fee dear, pack your things. We’ll go to him.”

She half-rose before sinking back, her eyes in her small white face starred and glistening as if dead, pupils huge and gold-filmed.

“I can’t go,” she said without a hint of agony, yet making everyone feel that the agony was there. “It would kill him to see me. Oh, Paddy, it would kill him! I know him so well—his pride, his ambition, his determination to be someone important. Let him bear the shame alone, it’s what he wants. You read it. ‘Just don’t tell my mother.’ We’ve got to help him keep his secret. What good will it do him or us to see him?”

Paddy was still weeping, but not for Frank; for the life which had gone from Fee’s face, for the dying in her eyes. A Jonah, that’s what the lad had always been; the bitter bringer of blight, forever standing between Fee and himself, the cause of her withdrawal from his heart and the hearts of his children. Every time it looked as if there might be happiness in store for Fee, Frank took it away. But Paddy’s love for her was as deep and impossible to eradicate as hers was for Frank; he could never use the lad as his whipping boy again, not after that night in the presbytery.

So he said, “Well, Fee, if you think it’s better not to attempt to get in touch with him, we won’t. Yet I’d like to know he was all right, that whatever can be done for him is being done. How about if I write to Father de Bricassart and ask him to look out for Frank?”

The eyes didn’t liven, but a faint pink stole into her cheeks. “Yes, Paddy, do that. Only make sure he knows not to tell Frank we found out. Perhaps it would ease Frank to think for certain that we don’t know.”

Within a few days Fee regained most of her energy, and her interest in redecorating the big house kept her occupied. But her quietness became dour again, only less grim, encapsulated by an expressionless calm. It seemed she cared more for how the big house would eventually look than she did for her family’s welfare. Perhaps she assumed they could look after themselves spiritually, and that Mrs. Smith and the maids were there to look after them physically.

Yet the discovery of Frank’s plight had profoundly affected everyone. The older boys grieved deeply for their mother, spent sleepless nights remembering her face at that awful moment. They loved her, and her cheerfulness during the previous few weeks had given them a glimpse of her which was never to leave them, and was to inspire them with a passionate desire to bring it back again. If their father had been the pivot upon which their lives turned until then, from that moment on their mother was put alongside him. They began to treat her with a tender, absorbed care no amount of indifference on her part could banish. From Paddy to Stu the Cleary males conspired to make Fee’s life whatever she wanted, and they demanded adherence to this end from everyone. No one must ever harm her or hurt her again. And when Paddy presented her with the pearls she took them with a brief, expressionless word of thanks, no pleasure or interest in her perusal; but everyone was thinking how different her reaction would have been were it not for Frank.

Had the move to the big house not occurred, poor Meggie would have suffered a great deal more than she did, for without admitting her into full, exclusively male membership of the protect-Mum society (perhaps sensing that her participation was more grudging than theirs), her father and older brothers expected that Meggie should shoulder all the tasks Fee obviously found repugnant. As it turned out, Mrs. Smith and the maids shared the burden with Meggie. Chiefly repugnant to Fee was the care of her two youngest sons, but Mrs. Smith assumed full charge of Jims and Patsy with such ardor Meggie couldn’t feel sorry for her, instead in a way she felt glad that these two could at last belong entirely to the housekeeper. Meggie grieved for her mother, too, but by no means as wholeheartedly as the men, for her loyalties were sorely tried; the big vein of motherliness in her was deeply offended by Fee’s mounting indifference to Jims and Patsy. When I have my children, she would think to herself, I’m never going to love one of them more than the rest.

Living in the big house was certainly very different. At first it was strange to have a bedroom to oneself, and for the women, not to have to worry about any sort of household duty, inside or outside. Minnie, Cat and Mrs. Smith among them coped with everything from washing and ironing to cooking and cleaning, and were horrified by offers of help. In return for plenty of food and a small wage, an endless procession of swaggies were temporarily entered on the station books as rouseabouts, to chop the wood for the homestead fires, feed the fowls and pigs, do the milking, help old Tom take care of the lovely gardens, do all the heavy cleaning.

Paddy had been communicating with Father Ralph.

“The income from Mary’s estate comes to roughly four million pounds a year, thanks to the fact that Michar Limited is a privately owned company with most of its assets sunk in steel, ships and mining,” wrote Father Ralph. “So what I’ve assigned to you is a mere drop in the Carson bucket, and doesn’t even amount to one-tenth of Drogheda station profits in a year. Don’t worry about bad years, either. The Drogheda station account is so heavily in the black I can pay you out of its interest forever, if necessary. So what money comes to you is no more than you deserve, and doesn’t dent Michar Limited. It’s station money you’re getting, not company money. I require no more of you than to keep the station books up to date and honestly entered for the auditors.”

It was after he had this particular letter that Paddy held a conference in the beautiful drawing room on a night when everyone was at home. He sat with his steel-rimmed reading half-glasses perched on his Roman nose, in a big cream chair, his feet comfortably disposed on a matching ottoman, his pipe in a Waterford ashtray.

“How nice this is.” He smiled, looking around with pleasure. “I think we ought to give Mum a vote of thanks for it, don’t you, boys?”

There were murmurs of assent from the “boys”; Fee inclined her head from where she sat in what had been Mary Carson’s wing chair, re-covered now in cream watered silk. Meggie curled her feet around the ottoman she had chosen instead of a chair, and kept her eyes doggedly on the sock she was mending.

“Well, Father de Bricassart has sorted everything out and has been very generous,” Paddy continued. “He’s put seven thousand pounds in the bank in my name, and opened a savings account for everyone with two thousand pounds in each. I am to be paid four thousand pounds a year as the station manager, and Bob will be paid three thousand a year as the assistant manager. All the working boys—Jack, Hughie and Stu—will be paid two thousand a year, and the little boys are to get one thousand a year each until they’re old enough to decide what they want to do.

“When the little boys are grown up, the estate will guarantee each of them a yearly income equal to a full working member of Drogheda, even if they don’t want to work on Drogheda. When Jims and Patsy turn twelve, they’ll be sent to Riverview College in Sydney to board and be educated at the expense of the estate.

“Mum is to have two thousand pounds a year for herself, and so is Meggie. The household account will be kept at five thousand pounds, though why Father thinks we need so much to run a house, I don’t know. He says in case we want to make major alterations. I have his instructions as to how much Mrs. Smith, Minnie, Cat and Tom are to be paid, and I must say he’s generous. Other wages I decide on myself. But my first decision as manager is to put on at least six more stockmen, so Drogheda can be run as it should be. It’s too much for a handful.” That was the most he ever said about his sister’s management.

No one had ever heard of having so much money; they sat silent, trying to assimilate their good fortune.

“We’ll never spend the half of it, Paddy,” said Fee. “He hasn’t left us anything to spend it on.”

Paddy looked at her gently. “I know, Mum. But isn’t it nice to think we’ll never have to worry about money again?” He cleared his throat. “Now it seems to me that Mum and Meggie in particular are going to be at a bit of a loose end,” he went on. “I was never much good at figures, but Mum can add and subtract and divide and multiply like an arithmetic teacher. So Mum is going to be the Drogheda bookkeeper, instead of Harry Gough’s office. I never realized it, but Harry has employed one chap just to deal with Drogheda’s accounts, and at the moment he’s a man short, so he doesn’t mind passing it back to us at all. In fact, he was the one who suggested Mum might make a good bookkeeper. He’s going to send someone out from Gilly to teach you properly, Mum. It’s quite complicated, apparently. You’ve got to balance the ledgers, the cash books, the journals, record everything in the log book, and so on. Enough to keep you pretty busy, only it won’t take the starch out of you the way cooking and washing did, will it?”

It was on the tip of Meggi’s tongue to shout: What about me? I did just as much washing and cooking as Mum!

Fee was actually smiling, for the first time since the news about Frank. “I’ll enjoy the job, Paddy, really I will. It will make me feel like a part of Drogheda.”

“Bob is going to teach you how to drive the new Rolls, because you’re going to have to be the one to go into Gilly to the bank and see Harry.” Besides, it will do you good to know you can drive anywhere you want without depending on one of us being around. We’re too isolated out here. I’ve always meant to teach you girls how to drive, but there’s never been the time before. All right, Fee?”

“All right, Paddy,” she said happily.

“Now, Meggie, we’ve got to deal with you.”

Meggie laid her sock and needle down, looked up at her father in a mixture of inquiry and resentment, sure she knew what he was going to say: her mother would be busy with the books, so it would be her job to supervise the house and its environs.

“I’d hate to see you turn into an idle, snobby miss like some of the graziers’ daughters we know,” Paddy said with a smile which robbed his words of any contempt. “So I’m going to put you to work at a full-time job, too, wee Meggie. You’re going to look after the inside paddocks for us—Borehead, Creek, Carson, Winnemurra and North Tank. You’re also going to look after the Home Paddock. You’ll be responsible for the stock horses, which ones are working and which ones are being spelled. During musters and lambing we’ll all pitch in together, of course, but otherwise you’ll manage on your own, I reckon. Jack can teach you to work the dogs and use a stock whip. You’re a terrible tomboy still, so I thought you might like to work in the paddocks more than lie around the house,” he finished, smiling more broadly than ever.

Resentment and discontent had flown out the window while he talked; he was once more Daddy, who loved her and thought of her. What had been the matter with her, to doubt him so? She was so ashamed of herself she felt like jabbing the big darning needle into her leg, but she was too happy to contemplate self-infliction of pain for very long, and anyway, it was just an extravagant way of expressing her remorse.

Her face shone. “Oh, Daddy, I’ll love it!”

“What about me, Daddy?” asked Stuart.

“The girls don’t need you around the house anymore, so you’ll be out in the paddocks again, Stu.”

“All right, Daddy.” He looked at Fee longingly, but said nothing.

Fee and Meggie learned to drive the new Rolls-Royce Mary Carson had taken delivery of a week before she died, and Meggie learned to work the dogs while Fee learned to keep the books.

If it hadn’t been for Father Ralph’s continued absence, Meggie for one would have been absolutely happy. This was what she had always longed to do: be out there in the paddocks astride a horse, doing stockman’s work. Yet the ache for Father Ralph was always there, too, the memory of his kiss something to be dreamed about, treasured, felt again a thousand times. However, memory wasn’t a patch on reality; try as she would, the actual sensation couldn’t be conjured up, only a shadow of it, like a thin sad cloud.

When he wrote to tell them about Frank, her hopes that he would use this as a pretext to visit them were abruptly shatttered. His description of the trip to see, Frank in Goulburn Gaol was carefully worded, stripped of the pain it had engendered, giving no hint of Frank’s steadily worsening psychosis. He had tried vainly to have Frank committed to Morisset asylum for the criminally insane, but no one had listened. So he simply passed on an idealistic image of a Frank resigned to paying for his sins to society, and in a passage heavily underlined told Paddy Frank had no idea they knew what had happened. It had come to his ears, he assured Frank, through Sydney newspapers, and he would make sure the family never knew. After being told this, Frank settled better, he said, and left it at that.

Paddy talked of selling Father Ralph’s chestnut mare. Meggie used the rangy black gelding she had ridden for pleasure as a stock horse, for it was lighter-mouthed and nicer in nature than the moody mares or mean geldings in the yards. Stock horses were intelligent, and rarely placid. Even a total absence of stallions didn’t make them very amiable animals.

“Oh, please, Daddy, I can ride the chestnut, too!” Meggie pleaded. “Think how awful it would be if after all his kindnesses to us, Father should come back to visit and discover we had sold his horse!”

Paddy stared at her thoughtfully. “Meggie, I don’t think Father will come back.”

“But he might! You never know!”

The eyes so like Fee’s were too much for him; he couldn’t bring himself to hurt her more than she was already hurt, poor little thing. “All right then, Meggie, we’ll keep the mare, but make sure you use both the mare and the gelding regularly, for I won’t have a fat horse on Drogheda, do you hear?”

Until then she hadn’t liked to use Father Ralph’s own mount, but after that she alternated to give both the animals in the stables a chance to work off their oats.

It was just as well Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat doted on the twins, for with Meggie out in the paddocks and Fee sitting for hours at her escritoire in the drawing room, the two little fellows had a wonderful time. They were into everything, but with such glee and constant good humor that no one could be angry with them for very long. At night in her little house Mrs. Smith, long converted to Catholicism, knelt to her prayers with such deep thankfulness in her heart she could scarcely contain it. Children of her own had never come to gladden her when Rob had been alive, and for years the big house had been childless, its occupants forbidden to mix with the inhabitants of the stockmen’s houses down by the creek. But when the Clearys came they were Mary Carson’s kin, and there were children at last. Especially now, with Jims and Patsy permanent residents of the big house.

It had been a dry winter, and the summer rains didn’t come. Knee-high and lush, the tawny grass dried out in the stark sun until even the inner core of each blade was crisp. To look across the paddocks required slitted eyes and a hat brim drawn far down on the forehead; the grass was mirror-silver, and little spiral whirlwinds sped busily among shimmering blue mirages, transferring dead leaves and fractured grass blades from one restless heap to another.

Oh, but it was dry! Even the trees were dry, the bark falling from them in stiff, crunchy ribbons. No danger yet of the sheep starving—the grass would last another year at least, maybe more—but no one liked to see everything so dry. There was always a good chance the rain would not come next year, or the year after. In a good year they got ten to fifteen inches, in a bad year less than five, perhaps close to none at all.

In spite of the heat and the flies, Meggie loved life out in the paddocks, walking the chestnut mare behind a bleating mob of sheep while the dogs lay flat on the ground, tongues lolling, deceptively inattentive. Let one sheep bolt out of the tightly packed cluster and the nearest dog would be away, a streak of vengeance, sharp teeth hungering to nip into a hapless heel.

Meggie rode ahead of her mob, a welcome relief after breathing their dust for several miles, and opened the paddock gate. She waited patiently while the dogs, reveling in this chance to show her what they could do, bit and goaded the sheep through. It was harder mustering and droving cattle, for they kicked or charged, often killing an unwary dog; that was when the human herdsman had to be ready to do his bit, use his whip, but the dogs loved the spice of danger working cattle. However, to drove cattle was not required of her; Paddy attended to that himself.

But the dogs never ceased to fascinate her; their intelligence was phenomenal. Most of the Drogheda dogs were kelpies, coated in rich brownish tan with creamy paws, chests and eyebrows, but there were Queensland blues too, larger, with blue-grey coats dappled in black, and all varieties of crossbreds between kelpie and blue. The bitches came in heat, were scientifically mated, increased and whelped; after weaning and growing, their pups were tried out in the paddocks, and if good were kept or sold, if no good shot.

Whistling her dogs to heel, Meggie shut the gate on the mob and turned the chestnut mare toward home. Nearby was a big stand of trees, stringybark and iron-bark and black box, an occasional wilga on its outskirts. She rode into its shade thankfully, and having now the leisure to look around, let her eyes roam in delight. The gums were full of budgies, skawking and whistling their parodies of songbirds; finches wheeled from branch to branch; two sulphur-crested cockatoos sat with their heads to one side watching her progress with twinkling eyes; willy-wagtails fossicked in the dirt for ants, their absurd rumps bobbing; crows carked eternally and mournfully. Theirs was the most obnoxious noise in the whole bush song repertoire, so devoid of joy, desolate and somehow soul-chilling, speaking of rotting flesh, of carrion and blowflies. To think of a crow singing like a bellbird was impossible; cry and function fitted perfectly.

Of course there were flies everywhere; Meggie wore a veil over her hat, but her bare arms were constantly plagued, and the chestnut mare’s tail never stopped swishing, its flesh never stopped shivering and creeping for a second. It amazed Meggie that even through the thickness of hide and hair, a horse could feel something as delicate and airy as a fly. They drank sweat, which was why they tormented horses and humans so, but humans never let them do what sheep did, so they used the sheep for a more intimate purpose, laying their eggs around the rump wool, or wherever the wool was damp and dirty.

The air was full of the noise of bees, and alive with brilliant quick dragonflies seeking out the bore drains, alive with exquisitely colored butterflies and day moths. Her horse turned over a piece of rotting log with a hoof; Meggie stared at its underside, her skin crawling. There were witchetty grubs, fat and white and loathsome, wood lice and slugs, huge centipedes and spiders. From burrows rabbits hopped and skittled, flashed back inside with white powder puffs up in the air, then turned to peer out, noses twitching. Farther on an echidna broke off its quest after ants, panicked at her approach. Burrowing so fast that its strong clawed feet were hidden in seconds, it began to disappear under a huge log. Its antics as it dug were amusing, the cruel spines lying flat all over its body to streamline its entry into the ground, earth flying in heaps.

She came out of the timber on the main track to the homestead. A sheet of dappled grey occupied its dust, galahs picking for insects or grubs, but as they heard her coming they took to the air en masse. It was like being inundated by a magenta-pink wave; breasts and underwings soared above her head, the grey turned magically to rich pink. If I had to leave Drogheda tomorrow, she thought, never again to come back, in my dreams I’d live Drogheda in a wash of pink galah undersides…. It must be getting very dry farther out; the kangas are coming in, more and more of them….

A great mob of kangaroos, maybe two thousand strong, was startled out of its placid grazing by the galahs and took off into the distance in long, graceful leaps which swallowed the leagues faster than any other animal save the emu. Horses couldn’t keep up with them.

In between these delightful bouts of nature-studying she thought of Ralph, as always. Privately Meggie had never catalogued what she felt for him as a schoolgirl crush, simply called it love, as they did in books. Her symptoms and feelings were no different from those of an Ethel M. Dell heroine. Nor did it seem fair that a barrier as artificial as his priesthood could stand between her and what she wanted of him, which was to have him as her husband. To live with him as Daddy did with Mum, in such harmony he would adore her the way Daddy did Mum. It had never seemed to Meggie that her mother did very much to earn her father’s adoration, yet worship her he did. So Ralph would soon see that to live with her was far better than living on his own; for it had not dawned upon her that Ralph’s priesthood was something he could not abandon under any circumstances. Yes, she knew it was forbidden to have a priest as husband or lover, but she had got into the habit of getting around it by stripping Ralph of his religious office. Her formal education in Catholicism had never advanced to discussions of the nature of priestly vows, and she was not herself in need of religion, so didn’t pursue it voluntarily. Obtaining no satisfaction from praying, Meggie obeyed the laws of the Church simply because not to do so meant burning in Hell throughout eternity.

In her present daydream she rambled through the bliss of living with him and sleeping with him, as Daddy did with Mum. Then the thought of his nearness excited her, made her shift in the saddle restlessly; she translated it into a deluge of kisses, having no other criterion. Riding the paddocks hadn’t advanced her sexual education at all, for the mere sniff of a dog in the far distance drove all desire to mate out of any animal’s mind, and as on all stations, indiscriminate mating was not allowed. When the rams were sent among the ewes of a particular paddock, Meggie was dispatched elsewhere, and the sight of one dog humping another was simply the signal to flick the pair with her whip, stop their “playing.”

Perhaps no human being is equipped to judge which is worse; inchoate longing with its attendant restlessness and irritability, or specific desire with its willful drive to achieve the desire. Poor Meggie longed, quite what for she didn’t know, but the basic pull was there, and it dragged her inexorably in the direction of Ralph de Bricassart. So she dreamed of him, yearned for him, wanted him; and mourned, that in spite of his declared love for her she meant so little to him that he never came to see her.

Into the middle of her thoughts rode Paddy, heading for the homestead on the same course as she was; smiling, she reined in the chestnut mare and waited for him to catch up.

“What a nice surprise,” said Paddy, walking his old roan beside his daughter’s middle-aged mare.

“Yes, it is,” she said. “Is it dry farther out?”

“A bit worse than this, I think. Lord, I’ve never seen so many kangas! It must be bone dry out Milparinka way. Martin King was talking of a big shoot, but I don’t see how an army of machine guns could reduce the number of kangas by enough to see the difference.”

He was so nice, so thoughtful and forgiving and loving; and it was rarely that she ever had the chance to be with him without at least one of the boys in attendance. Before she could change her mind, Meggie asked the doubting question, the one which gnawed and preyed in spite of all her internal reassurances.

“Daddy, why doesn’t Father de Bricassart ever come to see us?”

“He’s busy, Meggie,” Paddy answered, but his voice had become wary.

“But even priests have holidays, don’t they? He used to love Drogheda so, I’m sure he’d want to spend his holidays here.”

“In one way priests have holidays, Meggie, but in another way they’re never off duty. For instance, every day of their lives they have to say Mass, even if quite alone. I think Father de Bricassart is a very wise man, and knows that it’s never possible to go back to a way of life that’s gone. For him, wee Meggie, Drogheda’s a bit of the past. If he came back, it wouldn’t give him the same sort of pleasure it used to.”

“You mean he’s forgotten us,” she said dully.

“No, not really. If he had, he wouldn’t write so often, or demand news about each of us.” He turned in his saddle, his blue eyes pitying. “I think it’s best that he doesn’t ever come back, so I don’t encourage him to think of it by inviting him.”

“Daddy!”

Paddy plunged into muddy waters doggedly. “Look, Meggie, it’s wrong for you to dream about a priest, and it’s time you understood that. You’ve kept your secret pretty well, I don’t think anyone else knows how you feel about him, but it’s to me your questions come, isn’t it? Not many, but enough. Now take it from me, you’ve got to stop, hear it? Father de Bricassart took holy vows I know he has absolutely no intention of breaking, and you’ve mistaken his fondness for you. He was a grown man when he met you, and you were a little girl. Well, that’s how he thinks of you, Meggie, to this very day.”

She didn’t answer, nor did her face change. Yes, he thought, she’s Fee’s daughter, all right.

After a while she said tautly, “But he could stop being a priest. It’s just that I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it.”

The shock on Paddy’s face was too genuine not to believe it, so Meggie found it more convincing than his words, vehement though they were.

“Meggie! Oh, good God, that’s the worst of this bush existence! You ought to be in school, my girl, and if Auntie Mary had died sooner I would have packed you off to Sydney in time to get at least a couple of years under your belt. But you’re too old, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have them laugh at you at your age, poor wee Meggie.” He continued more gently, spacing his words to give them a sharp, lucid cruelty, though it was not his intention to be cruel, only to dispel illusions once and for all. “Father de Bricassart is a priest, Meggie. He can never, never stop being a priest, understand that. The vows he took are sacred, too solemn to break. Once a man is a priest there can be no turning away, and his supervisors in the seminary make absolutely sure that he knows what he’s swearing before he does. A man who takes those vows knows beyond any doubt that once taken they can’t be broken, ever. Father de Bricassart took them, and he’ll never break them.” He sighed. “Now you know, Meggie, don’t you? From this moment you have no excuse to daydream about Father de Bricassart.”

They had come in from the front of the homestead, so the stables were closer than the stockyards; without a word, Meggie turned the chestnut mare toward the stables, and left her father to continue alone. For a while he kept turning around to look after her, but when she had disappeared inside the fence around the stables he dug his roan in the ribs and finished his ride at a canter, hating himself and the necessity of saying what he had. Damn the man-woman thing! It seemed to have a set of rules at variance with all others.

Father Ralph de Bricassart’s voice was very cold, yet it was warmer than his eyes, which never veered from the young priest’s pallid face as he spoke his stiff, measured words.

“You have not conducted yourself as Our Lord Jesus Christ demands His priests conduct themselves. I think you know it better than we who censure you could ever know it, but I must still censure you on behalf of your Archbishop, who stands to you not only as a fellow priest but as your superior. You owe him perfect obedience, and it is not your place to argue with his sentiments or his decisions.

“Do you really understand the disgrace you’ve brought on yourself, on your parish, and especially on the Church you purport to love more than any human being? Your vow of chastity was as solemn and binding as your other vows, and to break it is to sin grievously. You will never see the woman again, of course, but it behooves us to assist you in your struggles to overcome temptation. Therefore we have arranged that you leave immediately for duty in the parish of Darwin, in the Northern Territory. You will proceed to Brisbane tonight on the express train, and from there you will proceed, again by train, to Longreach. In Longreach you will board a Qantas plane for Darwin. Your belongings are being packed at this moment and will be on the express before it departs, so there is no need for you to return to your present parish.

“Now go to the chapel with Father John and pray. You will remain in the chapel until it is time to join the train. For your comfort and consolation, Father John will travel with you to Darwin. You are dismissed.”

They were wise and aware, the priests in administration; they would permit the sinner no opportunity to have further contact with the young girl he had taken as his mistress. It had become the scandal of his present parish, and very embarrassing. As for the girl—let her wait, and watch, and wonder. From now until he arrived in Darwin he would be watched by the excellent Father John, who had his orders, then after that every letter he sent from Darwin would be opened, and he would not be allowed to make any long-distance phone calls. She would never know where he had gone, and he would never be able to tell her. Nor would he be given any chance to take up with another girl. Darwin was a frontier town; women were almost nonexistent. His vows were absolute, he could never be released from them; if he was too weak to police himself, the Church must do it for him.

After he had watched the young priest and his appointed watchdog go from the room, Father Ralph got up from his desk and walked through to an inner chamber. Archbishop Cluny Dark was sitting in his customary chair, and at right angles to him another man in purple sash and skullcap sat quietly. The Archbishop was a big man, with a shock of beautiful white hair and intensely blue eyes; he was a vital sort of fellow, with a keen sense of humor and a great love of the table. His visitor was quite the antithesis; small and thin, a few sparse strands of black hair around his skullcap and beneath them an angular, ascetic face, a sallow skin with a heavy beard shadow, and large dark eyes. In age he might have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, but in actual fact he was thirty-nine, three years older than Father Ralph de Bricassart.

“Sit down, Father, have a cup of tea,” said the Archbishop heartily. “I was beginning to think we’d have to send for a fresh pot. Did you dismiss the young man with a suitable admonition to mend his conduct?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” said Father Ralph briefly, and seated himself in the third chair around the tea table, loaded with wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches, pink and white iced fairy cakes, hot buttered scones with crystal dishes of jam and whipped cream, a silver tea service and Aynsley china cups washed with a delicate coating of gold leaf.

“Such incidents are regrettable, my dear Archbishop, but even we who are ordained the priests of Our Dear Lord are weak, all-too-human creatures. I find it in my heart to pity him deeply, and I shall pray tonight that he finds more strength in the future,” the visitor said.

His accent was distinctly foreign, his voice soft, with a hint of sibilance in its s’s. By nationality he was Italian, by title he was His Grace the Archbishop Papal Legate to the Australian Catholic Church, and by name he was Vittorio Scarbanza di Contini-Verchese. His was the delicate role of providing a link between the Australian hierarchy and the Vatican nerve center; which meant he was the most important priest in this section of the world.

Before being given this appointment he had of course hoped for the United States of America, but on thinking about it he decided Australia would do very nicely. If in population though not in area it was a much smaller country, it was also far more Catholic. Unlike the rest of the English-speaking world, it was no social comedown in Australia to be Catholic, no handicap to an aspiring politician or businessman or judge. And it was a rich country, it supported the Church well. No need to fear he would be forgotten by Rome while he was in Australia.

The Archbishop Papal Legate was also a very subtle man, and his eyes over the gold rim of his teacup were fixed not on Archbishop Cluny Dark but on Father Ralph de Bricassart, soon to become his own secretary. That Archbishop Dark liked the priest enormously was a well-known fact, but the Archbishop Papal Legate was wondering how well he was going to like such a man. They were all so big, these Irish-Australian priests, they towered far above him; he was so weary of forever having to tilt his head up to see their faces. Father de Bricassart’s manner to his present master was perfect: light, easy, respectful but man-to-man, full of humor. How would he adjust to working for a far different master? It was customary to appoint the Legatal secretary from the ranks of the Italian Church, but Father Ralph de Bricassart held great interest for the Vatican. Not only did he have the curious distinction of being personally rich (contrary to popular opinion, his superiors were not empowered to take his money from him, and he had not volunteered to hand it over), but he had single-handedly brought a great fortune into the Church. So the Vatican had decided that the Archbishop Papal Legate was to take Father de Bricassart as his secretary, to study the young man and find out exactly what he was like.

One day the Holy Father would have to reward the Australian Church with a cardinal’s biretta, but it would not be yet. Therefore it was up to him to study priests in Father de Bricassart’s age group, and of these Father de Bricassart was clearly the leading candidate. So be it. Let Father de Bricassart try his mettle against an Italian for a while. It might be interesting. But why couldn’t the man have been just a little smaller?

As he sipped his tea gratefully Father Ralph was unusually quiet. The Archbishop Papal Legate noticed that he ate a small sandwich triangle and eschewed the other delicacies, but drank four cups of tea thirstily, adding neither sugar nor milk. Well, that was what his report said; in his personal living habits the priest was remarkably abstemious, his only weakness being a good (and very fast) car.

“Your name is French, Father,” said the Archbishop Papal Legate softly, “but I understand you are an Irishman. How comes this phenomenon? Was your family French, then?”

Father Ralph shook his head, smiling. “It’s a Norman name, Your Grace, very old and honorable. I am a direct descendant of one Ranulf de Bricassart, who was a baron in the court of William the Conqueror. In 1066 he came to invade England with William, and one of his sons took English land. The family prospered under the Norman kings of England, and later on some of them crossed the Irish Sea during the time of Henry the Fourth, and settled within the Pale. When Henry the Eighth removed the English Church from Rome’s authority we kept the faith of William, which meant we felt we owed our first allegiance to Rome, not to London. But when Cromwell set up the Commonwealth we lost our lands and titles, and they were never restored to us. Charles had English favorites to reward with Irish land. It is not causeless, you know, the Irish hatred of the English.

“However, we descended to relative obscurity, still loyal to the Church, and to Rome. My older brother has a successful stud farm in County Meath, and hopes to breed a Derby or a Grand National winner. I am the second son, and it has always been a family tradition that the second son embrace the Church if he feels the wish for it. I’m very proud of my name and my lineage, you know. For fifteen hundred years there have been de Bricassarts.”

Ah, that was good! An old, aristocratic name and a perfect record of keeping the faith through emigrations and persecutions.

“And the Ralph?”

“A constriction of Ranulf, Your Grace.”

“I see.”

“I’m going to miss you greatly, Father,’ said Archbishop Cluny Dark, piling jam and whipped cream on half a scone and popping it whole into his mouth.

Father Ralph laughed at him. “You place me in a dilemma, Your Grace! Here I am seated between my old master and my new, and if I answer to please one, I must displease the other. But may I say I shall miss Your Grace, while looking forward to serving Your Grace?”

It was well said, a diplomat’s answer. Archbishop di Contini-Verchese began to think he might do well with such a secretary. But too good-looking by far, with those fine features, the striking coloring, the magnificent body.

Father Ralph lapsed back into silence, staring at the tea table without seeing it. He was seeing the young priest he had just disciplined, the look in those already tormented eyes as he realized they were not even going to let him say goodbye to his girl. Dear God, what if it had been him, and the girl Meggie? One could get away with it for a while if one was discreet; forever if one limited women to the yearly vacation away from the parish. But let a serious devotion to one woman enter the picture and they would inevitably find out.

There were times when only kneeling on the marble floor of the palace chapel until he was stiff with physical pain prevented him from catching the next train back to Gilly and Drogheda. He had told himself that he was simply the victim of loneliness, that he missed the human affection he had known on Drogheda. He told himself nothing had changed when he yielded to a passing weakness and kissed Meggie back; that his love for her was still located in realms of fancy and delight, that it had not passed into a different world which had a distracting, disturbing wholeness to it the earlier dreams had not. For he couldn’t admit anything had changed, and he kept Meggie in his mind as a little girl, shutting out any visions which might contradict this.

He had been wrong. The pain didn’t fade. It seemed to grow worse, and in a colder, uglier way. Before, his loneliness had been an impersonal thing, he had never been able to say to himself that the presence in his life of any one being could remedy it. But now loneliness had a name: Meggie. Meggie, Meggie, Meggie…

He came out of his reverie to find Archbishop di Contini-Verchese staring at him unwinkingly, and those large dark eyes were far more dangerously omniscient than the round vivid orbs of his present master. Far too intelligent to pretend there was nothing causing his brown study, Father Ralph gave his master-to-be as penetrating a look as he was receiving, then smiled faintly and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say: Every man has sadness in him, and it is no sin to remember a grief.

“Tell me, Father, has the sudden slump in economic affairs affected your charge?” the Italian prelate asked smoothly.

“So far we have nothing to worry about, Your Grace. Michar Limited isn’t easily affected by fluctuations in the market. I should imagine those whose fortunes are less carefully invested than Mrs. Carson’s are the ones who stand to lose the most. Of course the station Drogheda won’t do as well; the price of wool is falling. However, Mrs. Carson was too clever to sink her money into rural pursuits; she preferred the solidity of metal. Though to my mind this is an excellent time to buy land, not only stations in the country but houses and buildings in the major cities. Prices are ridiculously low, but they can’t remain low forever. I don’t see how we can lose on real estate in years to come if we buy now. The Depression will be over one day.”

“Quite,” said the Archbishop Papal Legate. So not only was Father de Bricassart something of a diplomat, he was also something of a businessman as well! Truly Rome had better keep her eye upon him.

7

Mary Carson was going to be seventy-two years old, and she was planning the biggest party to be held on Drogheda in fifty years. Her birthday fell at the start of November, when it was hot but till bearable—at least for Gilly natives.

“Mark that, Mrs. Smith!” Minnie whispered. “Do ye mark that! November the t’urrd herself was born!”

“What are you on about now, Min?” the housekeeper asked. Minnie’s Celtic mysteriousness got on her own good steady English nerves.

“Why, and to be sure it means herself is a Scorpio woman, does it not? A Scorpio woman, now!”

“I haven’t got the slightest idea what you’re talking about, Min!”

“The wurrst sign a woman can find herself born into, Mrs. Smith darlin’. Och, they’re children of the Devil, so they are!” said Cat, round-eyed, blessing herself.

“Honestly, Minnie, you and Cat are the dizzy limit,” said Mrs. Smith, not a whit impressed.

But excitement was running high, and would run higher. The old spider in her wing chair at the exact center of her web issued a never-ending stream of orders; this was to be done, that was to be done, such and such was to be taken out of storage, or put into storage. The two Irish maids ran polishing silver and washing the best Haviland china, turning the chapel back into a reception room and readying its adjacent dining rooms.

Hindered rather than helped by the little Cleary boys, Stuart and a team of rouseabouts mowed and scythed the lawn, weeded the flower beds, sprinkled damp sawdust on the verandas to clear dust from between the Spanish tiles, and dry chalk on the reception room floor to make it fit for dancing. Clarence O’Toole’s band was coming all the way from Sydney, along with oysters and prawns, crabs and lobsters; several women from Gilly were being hired as temporary helpers. The whole district from Rudna Hunish to Inishmurray to Bugela to Narrengang was in a ferment.

As the marble hallways echoed to unaccustomed sounds of objects being moved and people shouting, Mary Carson shifted herself from her wing chair to her desk, drew a sheet of parchment forward, dipped her pen in the standish, and began to write. There was no hesitation, not so much as a pause to consider the positioning of a comma. For the last five years she had worked out every intricate phrase in her mind, until it was absolutely word perfect. It did not take her long to finish; there were two sheets of paper, the second one with a good quarter of it blank. But for a moment, the last sentence complete, she sat on in her chair. The roll-top desk stood alongside one of the big windows, so that by simply turning her head she could look out across the lawns. A laugh from outside made her do so, idly at first, then in stiffening rage. God damn him and his obsession!

Father Ralph had taught Meggie to ride; daughter of a country family, she had never sat astride a horse until the priest remedied the deficiency. For oddly enough, the daughters of poor country families did not often ride. Riding was a pastime for the rich young women of country and city alike. Oh, girls of Meggie’s background could drive buggies and teams of heavy horses, even tractors and sometimes cars, but rarely did they ride. It cost too much to mount a daughter.

Father Ralph had brought elastic-sided ankle boots and twill jodhpurs from Gilly and plumped them down on the Cleary kitchen table noisily. Paddy had looked up from his after-dinner book, mildly surprised.

“Well, what have you got there, Father?” he asked.

“Riding clothes for Meggie.”

“What?” bellowed Paddy’s voice.

“What?” squeaked Meggie’s.

“Riding clothes for Meggie. Honestly, Paddy, you’re a first-class idiot! Heir to the biggest, richest station in New South Wales, and you’ve never let your only daughter sit a horse! How do you think she’s going to take her place alongside Miss Carmichael, Miss Hopeton and Mrs. Anthony King, equestriennes all? Meggie’s got to learn to ride, sidesaddle as well as astride, do you hear? I realize you’re busy, so I’m going to teach Meggie myself, and you can like it or lump it. If it happens to interfere with her duties in the house, too bad. For a few hours each week Fee is just going to have to manage minus Meggie, and that’s that.”

One thing Paddy couldn’t do was argue with a priest; Meggie learned to ride forthwith. For years she had longed for the chance, had once timidly ventured to ask her father might she, but he had forgotten the next moment and she never asked again, thinking that was Daddy’s way of saying no. To learn under the aegis of Father Ralph cast her into a joy which she didn’t show, for by this time her adoration of Father Ralph had turned into an ardent, very girlish crush. Knowing it was quite impossible, she permitted herself the luxury of dreaming about him, of wondering what it would be like to be held in his arms, receive his kiss. Further than that her dreams couldn’t go, as she had no idea what came next, or even that anything came next. And if she knew it was wrong to dream so of a priest, there didn’t seem to be any way she could discipline herself into not doing it. The best she could manage was to make absolutely sure he had no idea of the unruly turn her thoughts had taken.

As Mary Carson watched through the drawing room window, Father Ralph and Meggie walked down from the stables, which were on the far side of the big house from the head stockman’s residence. The station men rode rawboned stock horses which had never seen the inside of a stable in all their lives, just shuffled around the yards when penned for duty, or frisked through the grass of the Home Paddock when being spelled. But there were stables on Drogheda, though only Father Ralph used them now. Mary Carson kept two thoroughbred hacks there for Father Ralph’s exclusive use; no rawboned stock horses for him. When he had asked her if Meggie might use his mounts also, she could not very well object. The girl was her niece, and he was right. She ought to be able to ride decently.

With every bitter bone in her swollen old body Mary Carson had wished she had been able to refuse, or else ride with them. But she could neither refuse nor hoist herself on a horse anymore. And it galled her to see them now, strolling across the lawn together, the man in his breeches and knee boots and white shirt as graceful as a dancer, the girl in her jodhpurs slim and boyishly beautiful. They radiated an easy friendship; for the millionth time Mary Carson wondered why no one save she deplored their close, almost intimate relationship. Paddy thought it wonderful, Fee—log that she was!—said nothing, as usual, while the boys treated them as brother and sister. Was it because she loved Ralph de Bricassart herself that she saw what no one else saw? Or did she imagine it, was there really nothing save the friendship of a man in his middle thirties for a girl not yet all the way into womanhood? Piffle! No man in his middle thirties, even Ralph de Bricassart, could fail to see the unfolding rose. Even Ralph de Bricassart? Hah! Especially Ralph de Bricassart! Nothing ever missed that man.

Her hands were trembling; the pen sprinkled dark-blue drops across the bottom of the paper. The gnarled finger plucked another sheet from a pigeonhole, dipped the pen in the standish again, and rewrote the words as surely as the first time. Then she heaved herself to her feet and moved her bulk to the door.

“Minnie! Minnie!” she called.

“Lord help us, it’s herself!” the maid said clearly from the reception room opposite. Her ageless freckled face came round the door. “And what might I be gettin’ for ye, Mrs. Carson darlin’?” she asked, wondering why the old woman had not rung the bell for Mrs. Smith, as was her wont.

“Go and find the fencer and Tom. Send them here to me at once.”

“Ought I not be reportin’ to Mrs. Smith furrst?”

“No! Just do as you’re told, girl!”

Tom, the garden rouseabout, was an old, wizened fellow who had been on the track with his bluey and his billy, and taken work for a while seventeen years ago; he had fallen in love with the Drogheda gardens and couldn’t bear to leave them. The fencer, a drifter like all his breed, had been pulled from the endless task of stringing taut wire between posts in the paddocks to repair the homestead’s white pickets for the party. Awed at the summons, they came within a few minutes and stood in work trousers, braces and flannel undershirts, hats screwed nervously in their hands.

“Can both of you write?” asked Mrs. Carson.

They nodded, swallowed.

“Good. I want you to watch me sign this piece of paper, then fix your own names and addresses just below my signature. Do you understand?”

They nodded.

“Make sure you sign the way you always do, and print your permanent addresses clearly. I don’t care if it’s a post office general delivery or what, so long as you can be reached through it.”

The two men watched her inscribe her name; it was the only time her writing was not compressed. Tom came forward, sputtered the pen across the paper painfully, then the fencer wrote “Chas. Hawkins” in large round letters, and a Sydney address. Mary Carson watched them closely; when they were done she gave each of them a dull red ten-pound note, and dismissed them with a harsh injunction to keep their mouths shut.

Meggie and the priest had long since disappeared. Mary Carson sat down at her desk heavily, drew another sheet of paper toward her, and began once more to write. This communication was not achieved with the ease and fluency of the last. Time and time again she stopped to think, then with lips drawn back in a humorless grin, she would continue. It seemed she had a lot to say, for her words were cramped, her lines very close together, and still she required a second sheet. At the end she read what she had put down, placed all the sheets together, folded them and slid them into an envelope, the back of which she sealed with red wax.

Only Paddy, Fee, Bob, Jack and Meggie were going to the party; Hughie and Stuart were deputed to mind the little ones, much to their secret relief. For once in her life Mary Carson had opened her wallet wide enough for the moths to fly out, for everyone had new clothes, the best Gilly could provide.

Paddy, Bob and Jack were immobilized behind starched shirt fronts, high collars and white bow ties, black tails, black trousers, white waistcoats. It was going to be a very formal affair, white tie and tails for the men, sweeping gowns for the women.

Fee’s dress was of crepe in a peculiarly rich shade of blue-grey, and suited her, falling to the floor in soft folds, low of neckline but tightly sleeved to the wrists, lavishly beaded, much in the style of Queen Mary. Like that imperious lady, she had her hair done high in back-sweeping puffs, and the Gilly store had produced an imitation pearl choker and earrings which would fool all but a close inspection. A magnificent ostrich-feather fan dyed the same color as her gown completed the ensemble, not so ostentatious as it appeared at first glance; the weather was unusually hot, and at seven in the evening it was still well over a hundred degrees.

When Fee and Paddy emerged from their room; the boys gaped. In all their lives they had never seen their parents so regally handsome, so foreign. Paddy looked his sixty-one years, but in such a distinguished way he might have been a statesman; whereas Fee seemed suddenly ten years younger than her forty-eight, beautiful, vital, magically smiling. Jims and Patsy burst into shrieking tears, refusing to look at Mum and Daddy until they reverted to normal, and in the flurry of consternation dignity was forgotten; Mum and Daddy behaved as they always did, and soon the twins were beaming in admiration.

But it was at Meggie everyone stared the longest. Perhaps remembering her own girlhood, and angered that all the other young ladies invited had ordered their gowns from Sydney, the Gilly dressmaker had put her heart into Meggie’s dress. It was sleeveless and had a low, draped neckline; Fee had been dubious, but Meggie had implored and the dressmaker assured her all the girls would be wearing the same sort of thing—did she want her daughter laughed at for being countrified and dowdy? So Fee had given in gracefully. Of crepe geor-gette, a heavy chiffon, the dress was only slightly fitted at the waist, but sashed around the hips with the same material. It was a dusky, pale pinkish grey, the color that in those days was called ashes of roses; between them the dressmaker and Meggie had embroidered the entire gown in tiny pink rosebuds. And Meggie had cut her hair in the closest way she could to the shingle creeping even through the ranks of Gilly girls. It curled far too much for fashion, of course, but it suited her better short than long.

Paddy opened his mouth to roar because she was not his little girl Meggie, but shut it again with the words unuttered; he had learned from that scene in the presbytery with Frank long ago. No, he couldn’t keep her a little girl forever; she was a young woman and shy of the amazing transformation her mirror had shown her. Why make it harder for the poor little beggar?

He extended his hand to her, smiling tenderly. “Oh, Meggie, you’re so lovely! Come on, I’m going to escort you myself, and Bob and Jack shall take your mother.”

She was just a month short of seventeen, and for the first time in his life Paddy felt really old. But she was the treasure of his heart; nothing should spoil her first grown-up party.

They walked to the homestead slowly, far too early for the first guests; they were to dine with Mary Carson and be on hand to receive with her. No one wanted dirty shoes, but a mile through Drogheda dust meant a pause in the cookhouse to polish shoes, brush dust from trouser bottoms and trailing hems.

Father Ralph was in his soutane as usual; no male evening fashion could have suited him half so well as that severely cut robe with its slightly flaring lines, the innumerable little black cloth buttons up its front from hem to collar, the purple-edged monsignor’s sash.

Mary Carson has chosen to wear white satin, white lace and white ostrich feathers. Fee stared at her stupidly, shocked out of her habitual indifference. It was so incongruously bridal, so grossly unsuitable—why on earth had she tricked herself out like a raddled old spinster playacting at being married? She had got very fat of late, which didn’t improve matters.

But Paddy seemed to see nothing amiss; he strode forward to take his sister’s hands, beaming. What a dear fellow he was, thought Father Ralph as he watched the little scene, half amused, half detached.

“Well, Mary! How fine you look! Like a young girl!”

In truth she looked almost exactly like that famous photograph of Queen Victoria taken not long before she died. The two heavy lines were there on either side of the masterful nose, the mulish mouth was set indomitably, the slightly protruding and glacial eyes fixed without blinking on Meggie. Father Ralph’s own beautiful eyes passed from niece to aunt, and back to niece again.

Mary Carson smiled at Paddy, and put her hand on his arm. “You may take me in to dinner, Padraic. Father de Bricassart will escort Fiona, and the boys must make do with Meghann between them.” Over her shoulder she looked back at Meggie. “Do you dance tonight, Meghann?”

“She’s too young, Mary, she’s not yet seventeen,” said Paddy quickly, remembering another parental shortcoming; none of his children had been taught to dance.

“What a pity,” said Mary Carson.

It was a splendid, sumptuous, brilliant, glorious party; at least, they were the adjectives most bandied about. Royal O’Mara was there from Inishmurray, two hundred miles away; he came the farthest with his wife, sons and lone daughter, though not by much. Gilly people thought little of traveling two hundred miles to a cricket match, let alone a party. Duncan Gordon, from Each-Uisge; no one had ever persuaded him to explain why he had called his station so far from the ocean the Scots Gaelic for a sea horse. Martin King, his wife, his son Anthony and Mrs. Anthony; he was Gilly’s senior squatter, since Mary Carson could not be so called, being a woman. Evan Pugh, from Braich y Pwll, which the district pronounced Brakeypull. Dominic O’Rourke from Dibban-Dibban, Horry Hopeton from Beel-Beel; and dozens more.

They were almost to the last family present Catholic, and few sported Anglo-Saxon names; there was about an equal distribution of Irish, Scottish and Welsh. No, they could not hope for home rule in the old country, nor, if Catholic in Scotland or Wales, for much sympathy from the Protestant indigenes. But here in the thousands of square miles around Gillanbone they were lords to thumb their noses at British lords, masters of all they surveyed; Drogheda, the biggest property, was greater in area than several European principalities. Monegasque princelings, Liechtensteinian dukes, beware! Mary Carson was greater. So they whirled in waltzes to the sleek Sydney band and stood back indulgently to watch their children dance the Charleston, ate the lobster patties and the chilled raw oysters, drank the fifteen-year-old French champagne and the twelve-year-old single-malt Scotch. If the truth were known, they would rather have eaten roast leg of lamb or corned beef, and much preferred to drink cheap, very potent Bundaberg rum or Grafton bitter from the barrel. But it was nice to know the better things of life were theirs for the asking.

Yes, there were lean years, many of them. The wool checks were carefully hoarded in the good years to guard against the depredations of the bad, for no one could predict the rain. But it was a good period, had been for some time, and there was little to spend the money on in Gilly. Oh, once born to the black soil plains of the Great Northwest there was no place on earth like it. They made no nostalgic pilgrimages back to the old country; it had done nothing for them save discriminate against them for their religious convictions, where Australia was too Catholic a country to discriminate. And the Great Northwest was home.

Besides, Mary Carson was footing the bill tonight. She could well afford it. Rumor said she was able to buy and sell the King of England. She had money in steel, money in silver-lead-zinc, money in copper and gold, money in a hundred different things, mostly the sort of things that literally and metaphorically made money. Drogheda had long since ceased to be the main source of her income; it was no more than a profitable hobby.

Father Ralph didn’t speak directly to Meggie during dinner, nor did he afterward; throughout the evening he studiously ignored her. Hurt, her eyes sought him wherever he was in the reception room. Aware of it, he ached to stop by her chair and explain to her that it would not do her reputation (or his) any good if he paid her more attention than he did, say, Miss Carmichael, Miss Gordon or Miss O’Mara. Like Meggie he didn’t dance, and like Meggie there were many eyes on him; they were easily the two most beautiful people in the room.

Half of him hated her appearance tonight, the short hair, the lovely dress, the dainty ashes-of-roses silk slippers with their two-inch heels; she was growing taller, developing a very feminine figure. And half of him was busy being terrifically proud of the fact that she shone all the other young ladies down. Miss Carmichael had the patrician features, but lacked the special glory of that red-gold hair; Miss King had exquisite blond tresses, but lacked the lissome body; Miss Mackail was stunning of body, but in the face very like a horse eating an apple through a wire-netting fence. Yet his overall reaction was one of disappointment, and an anguished wish to turn back the calendar. He didn’t want Meggie to grow up, he wanted the little girl he could treat as his treasured babe. On Paddy’s face he glimpsed an expression which mirrored his own thoughts, and smiled faintly. What bliss it would be if just once in his life he could show his feelings! But habit, training and discretion were too ingrained.

As the evening wore on the dancing grew more and more uninhibited, the liquor changed from champagne and whiskey to rum and beer, and proceedings settled down to something more like a woolshed ball. By two in the morning only a total absence of station hands and working girls could distinguish it from the usual entertainments of the Gilly district, which were strictly democratic.

Paddy and Fee were still in attendance, but promptly at midnight Bob and Jack left with Meggie. Neither Fee nor Paddy noticed; they were enjoying themselves. If their children couldn’t dance, they could, and did; with each other mostly, seeming to the watching Father Ralph suddenly much more attuned to each other, perhaps because the times they had an opportunity to relax and enjoy each other were rare. He never remembered seeing them without at least one child somewhere around, and thought it must be hard on the parents of large families, never able to snatch moments alone save in the bedroom, where they might excusably have other things than conversation on their minds. Paddy was always cheerful and jolly, but Fee tonight almost literally shone, and when Paddy went to beg a duty dance of some squatter’s wife, she didn’t lack eager partners; there were many much younger women wilting on chairs around the room who were not so sought after.

However, Father Ralph’s moments to observe the Cleary parents were limited. Feeling ten years younger once he saw Meggie leave the room, he became a great deal more animated and flabbergasted the Misses Hopeton, Mackail, Gordon and O’Mara by dancing—and extremely well—the Black Bottom with Miss Carmichael. But after that he gave every unattached girl in the room her turn, even poor homely Miss Pugh, and since by this time everyone was thoroughly relaxed and oozing goodwill, no one condemned the priest one bit. In fact, his zeal and kindness were much admired and commented upon. No one could say their daughter had not had an opportunity to dance with Father de Bricassart. Of course, had it not been a private party he could not have made a move toward the dance floor, but it was so nice to see such a fine man really enjoy himself for once.

At three o’clock Mary Carson rose to her feet and yawned. “No, don’t stop the festivities! If I’m tired—which I am—I can go to bed, which is what I’m going to do. But there’s plenty of food and drink, the band has been engaged to play as long as someone wants to dance, and a little noise will only speed me into my dreams. Father, would you help me up the stairs, please?”

Once outside the reception room she did not turn to the majestic staircase, but guided the priest to her drawing room, leaning heavily on his arm. Its door had been locked; she waited while he used the key she handed him, then preceded him inside.

“It was a good party, Mary,” he said.

“My last.”

“Don’t say that, my dear.”

“Why not? I’m tired of living, Ralph, and I’m going to stop.” Her hard eyes mocked. “Do you doubt me? For over seventy years I’ve done precisely what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, so if Death thinks he’s the one to choose the time of my going, he’s very much mistaken. I’ll die when I choose the time, and no suicide, either. It’s our will to live keeps us kicking, Ralph; it isn’t hard to stop if we really want to. I’m tired, and I want to stop. Very simple.”

He was tired, too; not of living, exactly, but of the endless façade, the climate, the lack of friends with common interests, himself. The room was only faintly lit by a tall kerosene lamp of priceless ruby glass, and it cast transparent crimson shadows on Mary Carson’s face, conjuring out of her intractable bones something more diabolical. His feet and back ached; it was a long time since he had danced so much, though he prided himself on keeping up with whatever was the latest fad. Thirty-five years of age, a country monsignor, and as a power in the Church? Finished before he had begun. Oh, the dreams of youth! And the carelessness of youth’s tongue, the hotness of youth’s temper. He had not been strong enough to meet the test. But he would never make that mistake again. Never, never…

He moved restlessly, sighed; what was the use? The chance would not come again. Time he faced that fact squarely, time he stopped hoping and dreaming.

“Do you remember my saying, Ralph, that I’d beat you, that I’d hoist you with your own petard?”

The dry old voice snapped him out of the reverie his weariness had induced. He looked across at Mary Carson and smiled.

“Dear Mary, I never forget anything you say. What I would have done without you these past seven years I don’t know. Your wit, your malice, your perception…”

“If I’d been younger I’d have got you in a different way, Ralph. You’ll never know how I’ve longed to throw thirty years of my life out the window. If the Devil had come to me and offered to buy my soul for the chance to be young again, I’d have sold it in a second, and not stupidly regretted the bargain like that old idiot Faust. But no Devil. I really can’t bring myself to believe in God or the Devil, you know. I’ve never seen a scrap of evidence to the effect they exist. Have you?”

“No. But belief doesn’t rest on proof of existence, Mary. It rests on faith, and faith is the touchstone of the Church. Without faith, there is nothing.”

“A very ephemeral tenet.”

“Perhaps. Faith’s born in a man or a woman, I think. For me it’s a constant struggle, I admit that, but I’ll never give up.”

“I would like to destroy you.”

His blue eyes laughed, greyed in the light. “Oh, my dear Mary! I know that.”

“But do you know why?”

A terrifying tenderness crept against him, almost inside him, except that he fought it fiercely. “I know why, Mary, and believe me, I’m sorry.”

“Besides your mother, how many women have loved you?”

“Did my mother love me, I wonder? She ended in hating me, anyway. Most women do. My name ought to have been Hippolytos.”

“Oh! That tells me a lot!”

“As to other women, I think only Meggie…But she’s a little girl. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say hundreds of women have wanted me, but loved me? I doubt it very much.”

“I have loved you,” she said pathetically.

“No, you haven’t. I’m the goad of your old age, that’s all. When you look at me I remind you of what you cannot do, because of age.”

“You’re wrong. I have loved you. God, how much! Do you think my years automatically preclude it? Well, Father de Bricassart, let me tell you something. Inside this stupid body I’m still young—I still feel, I still want, I still dream, I still kick up my heels and chafe at restrictions like my body. Old age is the bitterest vengeance our vengeful God inflicts upon us. Why doesn’t He age our minds as well?” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, her teeth showing sourly. “I shall go to Hell, of course. But before I do, I hope I get the chance to tell God what a mean, spiteful, pitiful apology of a God He is!”

“You were a widow too long. God gave you freedom of choice, Mary. You could have remarried. If you chose not to remarry and in consequence you’ve been intolerably lonely, it’s your own doing, not God’s.”

For a moment she said nothing, her hands gripping the chair arms hard; then she began to relax, and opened her eyes. They glittered in the lamplight redly, but not with tears; with something harder, more brilliant. He caught his breath, felt fear. She looked like a spider.

“Ralph, on my desk is an envelope. Would you bring it to me, please?”

Aching and afraid, he got up and went to her desk, lifted the letter, eyed it curiously. The face of it was blank, but the back had been properly sealed with red wax and her ram’s head seal with the big D. He brought it to her and held it out, but she waved him to his seat without taking it.

“It’s yours,” she said, and giggled. “The instrument of your fate, Ralph, that’s what it is. My last and most telling thrust in our long battle. What a pity I won’t be here to see what happens. But I know what will happen, because I know you, I know you much better than you think I do. Insufferable conceit! Inside that envelope lies the fate of your life and your soul. I must lose you to Meggie, but I’ve made sure she doesn’t get you, either.”

“Why do you hate Meggie so?”

“I told you once before. Because you love her.”

“Not in that way! She’s the child I can never have, the rose of my life. Meggie is an idea, Mary, an idea!”

But the old woman sneered. “I don’t want to talk about your precious Meggie! I shall never see you again, so I don’t want to waste my time with you talking about her. The letter. I want you to swear on your vows as a priest that you don’t open it until you’ve seen my dead body for yourself, but then that you open it immediately, before you bury me. Swear!”

“There’s no need to swear, Mary. I’ll do as you ask.”

“Swear to me or I’ll take it back!”

He shrugged. “All right, then. On my vows as a priest I swear it. Not to open the letter until I’ve seen you dead, and then to open it before you’re buried.”

“Good, good!”

“Mary, please don’t worry. This is a fancy of yours, no more. In the morning you’ll laugh at it.”

“I won’t see the morning. I’m going to die tonight; I’m not weak enough to wait on the pleasure of seeing you again. What an anticlimax! I’m going to bed now. Will you take me to the top of the stairs?”

He didn’t believe her, but he could see it served no purpose to argue, and she was not in the mood to be jollied out of it. Only God decided when one would die, unless, of the free will He had given, one took one’s own life. And she had said she wouldn’t do that. So he helped her pant up the stairs and at the top took her hands in his, bent to kiss them.

She pulled them away. “No, not tonight. On my mouth, Ralph! Kiss my mouth as if we were lovers!”

By the brilliant light of the chandelier, lit for the party with four hundred wax candles, she saw the disgust in his face, the instinctive recoil; she wanted to die then, wanted to die so badly she could not wait.

“Mary, I’m a priest! I can’t!”

She laughed shrilly, eerily. “Oh, Ralph, what a sham you are! Sham man, sham priest! And to think once you actually had the temerity to offer to make love to me! Were you so positive I’d refuse? How I wish I hadn’t! I’d give my soul to see you wriggle out of it if we could have that night back again! Sham, sham, sham! That’s all you are, Ralph! An impotent, useless sham! Impotent man and impotent priest! I don’t think you could get it up and keep it up for the Blessed Virgin herself! Have you ever managed to get it up, Father de Bricassart? Sham!”

Outside it was not yet dawn, or the lightening before it. Darkness lay soft, thick and very hot over Drogheda. The revels were becoming extremely noisy; if the homestead had possessed next-door neighbors the police would have been called long since. Someone was vomiting copiously and revoltingly on the veranda, and under a wispy bottle brush two indistinct forms were locked together. Father Ralph avoided the vomiter and the lovers, treading silently across the springy new-mown lawn with such torment in his mind he did not know or care where he was going. Only that he wanted to be away from her, the awful old spider who was convinced she was spinning her death cocoon on this exquisite night. At such an early hour the heat was not exhausting; there was a faint, heavy stirring in the air, and a stealing of languorous perfumes from boronia and roses, the heavenly stillness only tropical and subtropical latitudes can ever know. Oh, God, to be alive, to be really alive! To embrace the night, and living, and be free!

He stopped on the far side of the lawn and stood looking up at the sky, an instinctive aerial searching for God. Yes, up there somewhere, between the winking points of light so pure and unearthly; what was it about the night sky? That the blue lid of day was lifted, a man permitted glimpses of eternity? Nothing save witnessing the strewn vista of the stars could convince a man that timelessness and God existed.

She’s right, of course. A sham, a total sham. No priest, no man. Only someone who wishes he knew how to be either. No! Not either! Priest and man cannot coexist—to be a man is to be no priest. Why did I ever tangle my feet in her web? Her poison is strong, perhaps stronger than I guess. What’s in the letter? How like Mary to bait me! How much does she know, how much does she simply guess? What is there to know, or guess? Only futility, and loneliness. Doubt, pain. Always pain. Yet you’re wrong, Mary. I can get it up. It’s just that I don’t choose to, that I’ve spent years proving to myself it can be controlled, dominated, subjugated. For getting it up is the activity of a man, and I am a priest.

Someone was weeping in the cemetery. Meggie, of course. No one else would think of it. He picked up the skirts of his soutane and stepped over the wrought-iron railing, feeling it was inevitable that he had not yet done with Meggie on this night. If he confronted one of the women in his life, he must also deal with the other. His amused detachment was coming back; she could not disperse that for long, the old spider. The wicked old spider. God rot her, God rot her!

“Darling Meggie, don’t cry,” he said, sitting on the dew-wet grass beside her. “Here, I’ll bet you don’t have a decent handkerchief. Women never do. Take mine and dry your eyes like a good girl.’

She took it and did as she was told.

“You haven’t even changed out of your finery. Have you been sitting here since midnight?”

“Yes.”

“Do Bob and Jack know where you are?”

“I told them I was going to bed.”

“What’s the matter, Meggie?”

“You didn’t speak to me tonight!”

“Ah! I thought that might be it. Come, Meggie, look at me!”

Away in the east was a pearly luster, a fleeing of total darkness, and the Drogheda roosters were shrieking an early welcome to the dawn. So he could see that not even protracted tears could dim the loveliness of her eyes.

“Meggie, you were by far the prettiest girl at the party, and it’s well known that I come to Drogheda more often than I need. I am a priest and therefore I ought to be above suspicion—a bit like Caesar’s wife—but I’m afraid people don’t think so purely. As priests go I’m young, and not bad-looking.” He paused to think how Mary Carson would have greeted that bit of understatement, and laughed soundlessly. “If I had paid you a skerrick of attention it would have been all over Gilly in record time. Every party line in the district would have been buzzing with it. Do you know what I mean?”

She shook her head; the cropped curls were growing brighter in the advancing light.

“Well, you’re young to come to knowledge of the ways of the world, but you’ve got to learn, and it always seems to be my province to teach you, doesn’t it? I mean people would be saying I was interested in you as a man, not as a priest.”

“Father!”

“Dreadful, isn’t it?” He smiled. “But that’s what people would say, I assure you. You see, Meggie, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re a young lady. But you haven’t learned yet to hide your affection for me, so had I stopped to speak to you with all those people looking on, you’d have stared at me in a way which might have been misconstrued.”

She was looking at him oddly, a sudden inscrutability shuttering her gaze, then abruptly she turned her head and presented him with her profile. “Yes, I see. I was silly not to have seen it.”

“Now don’t you think it’s time you went home? No doubt everyone will sleep in, but if someone’s awake at the usual time you’ll be in the soup. And you can’t say you’ve been with me, Meggie, even to your own family.”

She got up and stood staring down at him. “I’m going, Father. But I wish they knew you better, then they’d never think such things of you. It isn’t in you, is it?”

For some reason that hurt, hurt right down to his soul as Mary Carson’s cruel taunts had not. “No, Meggie, you’re right. It isn’t in me.” He sprang up, smiling wryly. “Would you think it strange if I said I wished it was?” He put a hand to his head. “No, I don’t wish it was at all! Go home, Meggie, go home!”

Her face was sad. “Good night, Father.”

He took her hands in his, bent and kissed them. “Good night, dearest Meggie.”

He watched her walk across the graves, step over the railing; in the rosebud dress her retreating form was graceful, womanly and a little unreal. Ashes of roses. “How appropriate,” he said to the angel.

Cars were roaring away from Droghedas as he strolled back across the lawn; the party was finally over. Inside, the band was packing away its instruments, reeling with rum and exhaustion, and the tired maids and temporary helpers were trying to clear up. Father Ralph shook his head at Mrs. Smith.

“Send everyone to bed, my dear. It’s a lot easier to deal with this sort of thing when you’re fresh. I’ll make sure Mrs. Carson isn’t angry.”

“Would you like something to eat, Father?”

“Good Lord, no! I’m going to bed.”

In the late afternoon a hand touched his shoulder. He reached for it blindly without the energy to open his eyes, and tried to hold it against his cheek.

“Meggie,” he mumbled.

“Father, Father! Oh, please will you wake up?”

At the tone of Mrs. Smith’s voice his eyes came suddenly very awake. “What is it, Mrs. Smith?”

“It’s Mrs. Carson, Father. She’s dead.”

His watch told him it was after six in the evening; dazed and reeling from the heavy torpor the day’s terrible heat had induced in him, he struggled out of his pajamas and into his priest’s clothes, threw a narrow purple stole around his neck and took the oil of extreme unction, the holy water, his big silver cross, his ebony rosary beads. It never occurred to him for a moment to wonder if Mrs. Smith was right; he knew the spider was dead. Had she taken something after all? Pray God if she had, it was neither obviously present in the room nor obvious to a doctor. What possible use it was to administer extreme unction he didn’t know. But it had to be done. Let him refuse and there would be post-mortems, all sorts of complications. Yet it had nothing to do with his sudden suspicion of suicide; simply that to him laying sacred things on Mary Carson’s body was obscene.

She was very dead, must have died within minutes of retiring, a good fifteen hours earlier. The windows were closed fast, and the room humid from the great flat pans of water she insisted be put in every inconspicuous corner to keep her skin youthful. There was a peculiar noise in the air; after a stupid moment of wondering he realized what he heard were flies, hordes of flies buzzing, insanely clamoring as they feasted on her, mated on her, laid their eggs on her.

“For God’s sake, Mrs. Smith, open the windows!” he gasped, moving to the bedside, face pallid.

She had passed out of rigor mortis and was again limp, disgustingly so. The staring eyes were mottling, her thin lips black; and everywhere on her were the flies. He had to have Mrs. Smith keep shooing them away as he worked over her, muttering the ancient Latin exhortations. What a farce, and she accursed. The smell of her! Oh, God! Worse than any dead horse in the freshness of a paddock. He shrank from touching her in death as he had in life, especially those fly-blown lips. She would be a mass of maggots within hours.

At last it was done. He straightened. “Go to Mr. Cleary at once, Mrs. Smith, and for God’s sake tell him to get the boys working on a coffin right away. No time to have one sent out from Gilly; she’s rotting away before our very eyes. Dear lord! I feel sick. I’m going to have a bath and I’ll leave my clothes outside my door. Burn them. I’ll never get the smell of her out of them.”

Back in his room in riding breeches and shirt—for he had not packed two soutanes—he remembered the letter, and his promise. Seven o’clock had struck; he could hear a restrained chaos as maids and temporary helpers flew to clear the party mess away, transform the reception room back into a chapel, ready the house for tomorrow’s funeral. No help for it, he would have to go into Gilly tonight to pick up another soutane and vestments for the Requiem Mass. Certain things he was never without when he left the presbytery for an outlying station, carefully strapped in compartments in the little black case, his sacraments for birth, death, benediction, worship, and the vestments suitable for Mass at whatever time of the year it was. But he was an Irishman, and to carry the black mourning accouterments of a Requiem was to tempt fate. Paddy’s voice echoed in the distance, but he could not face Paddy at the moment; he knew Mrs. Smith would do what had to be done.

Sitting at his window looking out over the vista of Drogheda in the dying sun, the ghost gums golden, the mass of red and pink and white roses in the garden all empurpled, he took Mary Carson’s letter from his case and held it between his hands. But she had insisted he read it before he buried her, and somewhere in his mind a little voice was whispering that he must read it now, not later tonight after he had seen Paddy and Meggie, but now before he had seen anyone save Mary Carson.

It contained four sheets of paper; he riffled them apart and saw immediately that the lower two were her will. The top two were addressed to him, in the form of a letter.

My dearest Ralph,

You will have seen that the second document in this envelope is my will. I already have a perfectly good will signed and sealed in Harry Gough’s office in Gilly; the will enclosed herein is a much later one, and naturally nullifies the one Harry has.

As a matter of fact I made it only the other day, and had it witnessed by Tom and the fencer, since I understand it is not permissible to have any beneficiary witness one’s will. It is quite legal, in spite of the fact Harry didn’t draw it up for me. No court in the land will deny its validity, I assure you.

But why didn’t I have Harry draw this testament up if I wanted to alter the disposition of my effects? Very simple, my dear Ralph. I wanted absolutely no one to know of this will’s existence apart from you, and me. This is the only copy, and you hold it. Not a soul knows that you do. A very important part of my plan.

Do you remember that piece of the Gospel where Satan took Our Lord Jesus Christ up onto a mountaintop, and tempted Him with the whole world? How pleasant it is to know I have a little of Satan’s power, and am able to tempt the one I love (do you doubt Satan loved Christ? I do not) with the whole world. The contemplation of your dilemma has considerably enlivened my thoughts during the past few years, and the closer I get to dying, the more delightful my visions become.

After you’ve read the will, you’ll understand what I mean. While I burn in Hell beyond the borders of this life I know now, you’ll still be in that life, but burning in a hell with fiercer flames than any God could possibly manufacture. Oh, my Ralph, I’ve gauged you to a nicety! If I never knew how to do anything else, I’ve always known how to make the ones I love suffer. And you’re far better game than my dear departed Michael ever was.

When I first knew you, you wanted Drogheda and my money, didn’t you, Ralph? You saw it as a way to buy back your natural métier. But then came Meggie, and you put your original purpose in cultivating me out of your mind, didn’t you? I became an excuse to visit Drogheda so you could be with Meggie. I wonder could you have switched allegiances so easily had you known how much I’m actually worth? Do you know, Ralph? I don’t think you have an inkling. I suppose it isn’t ladylike to mention the exact sum of one’s assets in one’s will, so I had better tell you here just to make sure you have all the necessary information at your fingertips when it comes to your making a decision. Give or take a few hundred thousands, my fortune amounts to some thirteen million pounds.

I’m getting down toward the foot of the second page, and I can’t be bothered turning this into a thesis. Read my will, Ralph, and after you’ve read it, decide what you’re going to do with it. Will you tender it to Harry Gough for probate, or will you burn it and never tell a soul it existed. That’s the decision you’ve got to make. I ought to add that the will in Harry’s office is the one I made the year after Paddy came, and leaves everything I have to him. Just so you know what hangs in the balance.

Ralph, I love you, so much I would have killed you for not wanting me, except that this is a far better form of reprisal. I’m not the noble kind; I love you but I want you to scream in agony. Because, you see, I know what your decision will be. I know it as surely as if I could be there, watching. You’ll scream, Ralph, you’ll know what agony is. So read on, my beautiful, ambitious priest! Read my will, and decide your fate.

It was not signed or initialed. He felt the sweat on his forehead, felt it running down the back of his neck from his hair. And he wanted to get up that very moment to burn both documents, never read what the second one contained. But she had gauged her quarry well, the gross old spider. Of course he would read on; he was too curious to resist. God! What had he ever done, to make her want to do this to him? Why did women make him suffer so? Why couldn’t he have been born small, twisted, ugly? If he were so, he might have been happy.

The last two sheets were covered by the same precise, almost minute writing. As mean and grudging as her soul.

I, Mary Elizabeth Carson, being of sound mind and sound body, do hereby declare that this is my last will and testament, thereby rendering null and void any such testaments previously made by me.

Save only for the special bequests made below, all my worldly goods and moneys and properties I bequeath to the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, under the hereby stated conditions of bequest:

First, that the said Holy Catholic Church of Rome, to be called the Church hereafter, knows in what esteem and with what affection I hold her priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. It is solely because of his kindness, spiritual guidance and unfailing support that I so dispose of my assets.

Secondly, that the bequest shall continue in the favor of the Church only so long as she appreciates the worth and ability of the said Father Ralph de Bricassart.

Thirdly, that the said Father Ralph de Bricassart be responsible for the administration and channeling of these my worldly goods, moneys and properties, as the chief authority in charge of my estate.

Fourthly, that upon the demise of the said Father Ralph de Bricassart, his own last will and testament shall be legally binding in the matter of the further administration of my estate. That is, the Church shall continue in full ownership, but Father Ralph de Bricassart shall be solely responsible for the naming of his successor in administration; he shall not be obliged to select a successor who is either an ecclesiastical or a lay member of the Church.

Fifthly, that the station Drogheda be never sold nor subdivided.

Sixthly, that my brother, Padraic Cleary, be retained as manager of the station Drogheda with the right to dwell in my house, and that he be paid a salary at the discretion of Father Ralph de Bricassart and no other.

Seventhly, that in the event of the death of my brother, the said Padraic Cleary, his widow and children be permitted to remain on the station Drogheda and that the position of manager shall pass consecutively to each of his sons, Robert, John, Hugh, Stuart, James and Patrick, but excluding Francis.

Eighthly, that upon the demise of Patrick or whichever son excluding Francis is the last son remaining, the same rights be permitted the said Padraic Cleary’s grandchildren.

Special bequests:

To Padraic Cleary, the contents of my houses on the station Drogheda.

To Eunice Smith, my housekeeper, that she remain at a fair salary so long as she desires, and in addition that she be paid the sum of five thousand pounds forthwith, and that upon her retirement she be awarded an equitable pension.

To Minerva O’Brien and Catherine Donnelly, that they remain at fair salaries so long as they desire, and in addition that they be paid the sum of one thousand pounds each forthwith, and that upon their retirements they be awarded equitable pensions.

To Father Ralph de Bricassart the sum of ten thousand pounds to be paid annually so long as he shall live, for his own private and unquestioned use.

It was duly signed, dated and witnessed.

His room looked west. The sun was setting. The pall of dust which came with every summer filled the silent air, and the sun thrust its fingers through the fine-strung particles so that it seemed the whole world had turned to gold and purple. Streaky clouds rimmed in brilliant fire poked silver streamers across the great bloody ball which hung just above the trees of the far paddocks.

“Bravo!” he said. “I admit, Mary, you’ve beaten me. A master stroke. I was the fool, not you.”

He could not see the pages in his hand through the tears, and moved them before they could be blotched. Thirteen million pounds. Thirteen million pounds! It was indeed what he had been angling for in the days before Meggie. And with her coming he had abandoned it, because he couldn’t carry on such a campaign in cold blood to cheat her of her inheritance. But what if he had known how much the old spider was worth? What then? He had no idea it was a tenth so much. Thirteen million pounds!

For seven years Paddy and his family had lived in the head stockman’s house and worked themselves ragged for Mary Carson. For what? The niggardly wages she paid? Never to Father Ralph’s knowledge had Paddy complained of being shabbily treated, thinking no doubt that when his sister died he would be amply repaid for managing the property on ordinary stockman’s pay, while his sons did stockman’s work for rouseabout’s wages. He had made do, and grown to Jove Drogheda as if it were his own, rightly assuming it would be.

“Bravo, Mary!” said Father Ralph again, these first tears since his boyhood dropping from his face onto the backs of his hands, but not onto the paper.

Thirteen million pounds, and the chance to be Cardinal de Bricassart yet. Against Paddy Cleary, his wife, his sons—and Meggie. How diabolically well she had read him! Had she stripped Paddy of everything, his way would have been clear: he could have taken the will down to the kitchen stove and thrust it inside the firebox without a qualm. But she had made sure Paddy wouldn’t want, that after her death he would be more comfortable on Drogheda than during her life, and that Drogheda could not quite be taken from him. Its profits and title, yes, but not the land itself. No, he wouldn’t be the owner of that fabulous thirteen million pounds, but he would be well respected, comfortably provided for. Meggie wouldn’t go hungry, or be thrown shoeless upon the world. Nor would she be Miss Cleary, either, able to stand on an equal footing with Miss Carmichael and that ilk. Quite respectable, socially admissible, but not top drawer. Never top drawer.

Thirteen million pounds. The chance to get out of Gillanbone and perpetual obscurity, the chance to take his place within the hierarchy of Church administration, the assured goodwill of his peers and superiors. And all while he was still young enough to make up the ground he had lost. Mary Carson had made Gillanbone the epicenter of the Archbishop Papal Legate’s map with a vengeance; the tremors would reach as far as the Vatican. Rich though the Church was, thirteen million pounds was thirteen million pounds. Not to be sneezed at, even by the Church. And his was the sole hand which brought it into the fold, his hand acknowledged in blue ink in Mary Carson’s own writing. He knew Paddy would never contest the will; so had Mary Carson, God rot her. Oh, certainly Paddy would be furious, would never want to see him again or speak to him again, but his chagrin wouldn’t extend to litigation.

Was there a decision? Didn’t he already know, hadn’t he known the moment he read her will what he was going to do? The tears had dried. With his usual grace Father Ralph got to his feet, made sure his shirt was tucked in all the way round, and went to the door. He must get to Gilly, pick up a soutane and vestments. But first he wanted to see Mary Carson again.

In spite of the open windows the stench had become a reeking fug; no hint of a breeze stirred the limp curtains. With steady tread he crossed to the bed and stood looking down. The fly eggs were beginning to hatch maggots in all the wet parts of her face, ballooning gases puffed up her fat arms and hands to greenish blobs, her skin was breaking down. Oh, God. You disgusting old spider. You’ve won, but what a victory. The triumph of one disintegrating caricature of humanity over another. You can’t defeat my Meggie, nor can you take from her what was never yours. I might burn in Hell alongside you, but I know the Hell they’ve got planned for you: to see my indifference to you persist as we rot away together through all eternity….

Paddy was waiting for him in the hall downstairs, looking sick and bewildered.

“Oh, Father!” he said, coming forward. “Isn’t this awful? What a shock! I never expected her to go out like this; she was so well last night! Dear God, what am I going to do?”

“Have you seen her?”

“Heaven help me, yes!”

“Then you know what has to be done. I’ve never seen a corpse decompose so fast. If you don’t get her decently into some sort of container within the next few hours you’ll have to pour her into a petrol drum. She’ll have to be buried first thing in the morning. Don’t waste time beautifying her coffin; cover it with roses from the garden or something. But get a move on, man! I’m going into Gilly for vestments.”

“Get back as soon as you can, Father!” Paddy pleaded.

But Father Ralph was rather longer than a simple visit to the presbytery demanded. Before he turned his car in that direction he drove down one of Gillanbone’s more prosperous side streets, to a fairly pretentious dwelling surrounded by a well-laid-out garden.

Harry Gough was just sitting down to his dinner, but came into the parlor when the maid told him who had called.

“Father, will you eat with us? Corned beef and cabbage with boiled potatoes and parsley sauce, and for once the beef’s not too salty.”

“No, Harry, I can’t stay. I just came to tell you Mary Carson died this morning.”

“Holy Jesus! I was there last night! She seemed so well, Father!”

“I know. She was perfectly well when I took her up the stairs about three, but she must have died almost the moment she retired. Mrs. Smith found her at six this evening. By then she’d been dead so long she was hideous; the room was shut up like an incubator all through the heat of the day. Dear Lord, I pray to forget the sight of her! Unspeakable, Harry, awful.”

“She’ll be buried tomorrow?”

“She’ll have to be.”

“What time is it? Ten? We must eat dinner as late as the Spaniards in this heat, but no need to worry, it’s too late to start phoning people. Would you like me to do that for you, Father?”

“Thank you, it would be a great kindness. I only came into Gilly for vestments. I never expected to be saying a Requiem when I started out. I must get back to Drogheda as quickly as I can; they need me. The Mass will be at nine in the morning.”

“Tell Paddy I’ll bring her will with me, so I can deal with it straight after the funeral. You’re a beneficiary, too, Father, so I’d appreciate your staying for the reading.”

“I’m afraid we have a slight problem, Harry. Mary made another will, you see. Last night after she left the party she gave me a sealed envelope, and made me promise I’d open it the moment I saw her dead body for myself. When I did so I found it contained a fresh will.”

“Mary made a new will? Without me?”

“It would appear so. I think it was something she had been mulling for a long time, but as to why she chose to be so secretive about it, I don’t know.”

“Do you have it with you now, Father?”

“Yes.” The priest reached inside his shirt and handed over the sheets of paper, folded small.

The lawyer had no compunction about reading them on the spot. When he finished he looked up, and there was a great deal in his eyes Father Ralph would rather not have seen. Admiration, anger, a certain contempt.

“Well, Father, congratulations! You got the lot after all.” He could say it, not being a Catholic.

“Believe me, Harry, it came as a bigger surprise to me than it does to you.”

“This is the only copy?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“And she gave it to you as late as last night?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you destroy it, make sure poor old Paddy got what’s rightfully his? The Church has no right to Mary Carson’s possessions at all.”

The priest’s fine eyes were bland. “Ah, but that wouldn’t have been fitting, Harry, would it now? It was Mary’s property, to dispose of in any manner she wished.”

“I shall advise Paddy to contest.”

“I think you should.”

And on that note they parted. By the time everyone arrived in the morning to see Mary Carson buried, the whole of Gillanbone and all points of the compass around it would know where the money was going. The die was cast, there could be no turning back.

It was four in the morning when Father Ralph got through the last gate and into the Home Paddock, for he hadn’t hurried on the return drive. All through it he had willed his mind to blankness; he wouldn’t let himself think. Not of Paddy or of Fee, or Meggie or that stinking gross thing they had (he devoutly hoped) poured into her coffin. Instead he opened his eyes and his mind to the night, to the ghostly silver of dead trees standing lonely in the gleaming grass, to the heart-of-darkness shadows cast by stands of timber, to the full moon riding the heavens like an airy bubble. Once he stopped the car and got out, walked to a wire fence and leaned on its tautness while he breathed in the gums and the bewitching aroma of wildflowers. The land was so beautiful, so pure, so indifferent to the fates of the creatures who presumed to rule it. They might put their hands to it, but in the long run it ruled them. Until they could direct the weather and summon up the rain, it had the upper hand.

He parked his car some distance behind the house and walked slowly toward it. Every window was full of light; faintly from the housekeeper’s quarters he could hear the sound of Mrs. Smith leading the two Irish maids in a rosary. A shadow moved under the blackness of the wistaria vine; he stopped short, his hackles rising. She had got to him in more ways than one, the old spider. But it was only Meggie, patiently waiting for him to come back. She was in jodhpurs and boots, very much alive.

“You gave me a fright,” he said abruptly.

“I’m sorry, Father, I didn’t mean to. But I didn’t want to be inside there with Daddy and the boys, and Mum is still down at our house with the babies. I suppose I ought to be praying with Mrs. Smith and Minnie and Cat, but I don’t feel like praying for her. That’s a sin, isn’t it?”

He was in no mood to pander to the memory of Mary Carson. “I don’t think it’s a sin, Meggie, whereas hypocrisy is. I don’t feel like praying for her, either. She wasn’t…a very good person.” His smile flashed. “So if you’ve sinned in saying it, so have I, and more seriously at that. I’m supposed to love everyone, a burden which isn’t laid upon you.”

“Are you all right, Father?”

“Yes, I’m all right.” He looked up at the house, and sighed. “I don’t want to be in there, that’s all. I don’t want to be where she is until it’s light and the demons of the darkness are driven away. If I saddle the horses, will you ride with me until dawn?”

Her hand touched his black sleeve, fell. “I don’t want to go inside, either.”

“Wait a minute while I put my soutane in the car.”

“I’ll go on to the stables.”

For the first time she was trying to meet him on his ground, adult ground; he could sense the difference in her as surely as he could smell the roses in Mary Carson’s beautiful gardens. Roses. Ashes of roses. Roses, roses, everywhere. Petals in the grass. Roses of summer, red and white and yellow. Perfume of roses, heavy and sweet in the night. Pink roses, bleached by the moon to ashes. Ashes of roses, ashes of roses. My Meggie, I have forsaken you. But can’t you see, you’ve become a threat? Therefore have I crushed you beneath the heel of my ambition; you have no more substance to me than a bruised rose in the grass. The smell of roses. The smell of Mary Carson. Roses and ashes, ashes of roses.

“Ashes of roses,” he said, mounting. “Let’s get as far from the smell of roses as the moon. Tomorrow the house will be full of them.”

He kicked the chestnut mare and cantered ahead of Meggie down the track to the creek, longing to weep; for until he smelled the future adornments of Mary Carson’s coffin it had not actually impinged on his thinking brain as an imminent fact. He would be going away very soon. Too many thoughts, too many emotions, all of them ungovernable. They wouldn’t leave him in Gilly a day after learning the terms of that incredible will; they would recall him to Sydney immediately. Immediately! He fled from his pain, never having known such pain, but it kept pace with him effortlessly. It wasn’t something in a vague sometime; it was going to happen immediately. And he could almost see Paddy’s face, the revulsion, the turning away. After this he wouldn’t be welcome on Drogheda, and he would never see Meggie again.

The disciplining began then, hammered by hoofs and in a sensation of flying. It was better so, better so, better so. Galloping on and on. Yes, it would surely hurt less then, tucked safely in some cell in a bishop’s palace, hurt less and less, until finally even the ache faded from consciousness. It had to be better so. Better than staying in Gilly to watch her change into a creature he didn’t want, then have to marry her one day to some unknown man. Out of sight, out of mind.

Then what was he doing with her now, riding through the stand of box and coolibah on the far side of the creek? He couldn’t seem to think why, he only felt the pain. Not the pain of betrayal; there wasn’t room for that. Only for the pain of leaving her.

“Father, Father! I can’t keep up with you! Slow down, Father, please!”

It was the call to duty, and reality. Like a man in slow motion he wrenched the mare around, sat it until it had danced out its excitement. And waited for Meggie to catch him up. That was the trouble. Meggie was catching him up.

Close by them was the roar of the borehead, a great steaming pool smelling of sulphur, with a pipe like a ship’s ventilator jetting boiling water into its depths. All around the perimeter of the little elevated lake like spokes from a wheel’s hub, the bore drains dribbled off across the plain whiskered in incongruously emerald grass. The banks of the pool were slimy grey mud, and the freshwater crayfish called yabbies lived in the mud.

Father Ralph started to laugh. “It smells like Hell, Meggie, doesn’t it? Sulphur and brimstone, right here on her own property, in her own backyard. She ought to recognize the smell when she gets there decked in roses, oughtn’t she? Oh, Meggie…”

The horses were trained to stand on a dangling rein; there were no fences nearby, and no trees closer than half a mile away. But there was a log on the side of the pool farthest from the borehead itself, where the water was cooler. It was the seat provided for winter bathers as they dried their feet and legs.

Father Ralph sat down and Meggie sat some way from him, turned side on to watch him.

“What’s the matter, Father?”

It sounded peculiar, his oft-asked question from her lips, to him. He smiled. “I’ve sold you, my Meggie, sold you for thirteen million pieces of silver.”

“Sold me?”

“A figure of speech. It doesn’t matter. Come, sit closer to me. There may not be the chance for us to talk together again.”

“While we’re in mourning for Auntie, you mean?” She wriggled up the log and sat next to him. “What difference will being in mourning make?”

“I don’t mean that, Meggie.”

“You mean because I’m growing up, and people might gossip about us?”

“Not exactly. I mean I’m going away.”

There it was: the meeting of trouble head on, the acceptance of another load. No outcry, no weeping, no storm of protest. Just a tiny shrinking, as if the burden sat askew, would not distribute itself so she could bear it properly. And a caught breath, not quite like a sigh.

“When?”

“A matter of days.”

“Oh, Father! It will be harder than Frank.”

“And for me harder than anything in my life. I have no consolation. You at least have your family.”

“You have your God.”

“Well said, Meggie! You are growing up!”

But, tenacious female, her mind had returned to the question she had ridden three miles without a chance to ask. He was leaving, it would be so hard to do without him, but the question had its own importance.

“Father, in the stables you said ‘ashes of roses.’ Did you mean the color of my dress?”

“In a way, perhaps. But I think really I meant something else.”

“What?”

“Nothing you’d understand, my Meggie. The dying of an idea which had no right to be born, let alone nurtured.”

“There is nothing which has no right to be born, even an idea.”

He turned his head to watch her. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

“I think so.”

“Not everything born is good, Meggie.”

“No. But if it was born at all, it was meant to be.”

“You argue like a Jesuit. How old are you?”

“I’ll be seventeen in a month, Father.”

“And you’ve toiled all seventeen years of it. Well, hard work ages us ahead of our years. What do you think about, Meggie, when you’ve the time to think?”

“Oh, about Jims and Patsy and the rest of the boys, about Daddy and Mum, about Hal and Auntie Mary. Sometimes about growing babies. I’d like that very much. And riding, the sheep. All the things the men talk about. The weather, the rain, the vegetable garden, the hens, what I’m going to do tomorrow.”

“Do you dream of having a husband?”

“No, except I suppose I’ll have to have one if I want to grow babies. It isn’t nice for a baby to have no father.”

In spite of his pain he smiled; she was such a quaint mixture of ignorance and morality. Then he swung sideways, took her chin in his hand and stared down at her. How to do it, what had to be done?

“Meggie, I realized something not long ago which I ought to have seen sooner. You weren’t being quite truthful when you told me what you thought about, were you?”

“I…”, she said, and fell silent.

“You didn’t say you thought about me, did you? If there was no guilt in it, you would have mentioned my name alongside your father’s. I think perhaps it’s a good thing I’m going away, don’t you? You’re a little old to be having schoolgirl crushes, but you’re not a very old almost-seventeen, are you? I like your lack of worldly wisdom, but I know how painful schoolgirl crushes can be; I’ve suffered enough of them.”

She seemed about to speak, but in the end her lids fell over tear-bright eyes, she shook her head free.

“Look, Meggie, it’s simply a phase, a marker on the road to being a woman. When you’ve become that woman, you’ll meet the man destined to be your husband and you’ll be far too busy getting on with your life to think of me, except as an old friend who helped you through some of the terrible spasms of growing up. What you mustn’t do is get into the habit of dreaming about me in any sort of romantic fashion. I can never regard you the way a husband will. I don’t think of you in that light at all, Meggie, do you understand me? When I say I love you, I don’t mean I love you as a man. I am a priest, not a man. So don’t fill your head with dreams of me. I’m going away, and I doubt very much that I’ll have time to come back, even on a visit.”

Her shoulders were bent as if the load was very heavy, but she lifted her head to look directly into his face.

“I won’t fill my head with dreams of you, don’t worry. I know you’re a priest.”

“I’m not convinced I chose my vocation wrongly. It fills a need in me no human being ever could, even you.”

“I know. I can see it when you say Mass. You have a power. I suppose you must feel like Our Lord.”

“I can feel every suspended breath in the church, Meggie! As each day goes on I die, and in each morning saying Mass I am reborn. But is it because I’m God’s chosen priest, or because I hear those awed breaths, know the power I have over every soul present?”

“Does it matter? It just is.”

“It would probably never matter to you, but it does to me. I doubt, I doubt.”

She switched the subject to what mattered to her. “I don’t know how I shall get on without you, Father. First Frank, now you. Somehow with Hal it’s different; I know he’s dead and can never come back. But you and Frank are alive! I’ll aways be wondering how you are, what you’re doing, if you’re all right, if there’s anything I could do to help you. I’ll even have to wonder if you’re still alive, won’t I?”

“I’ll be feeling the same, Meggie, and I’m sure that Frank does, too.”

“No. Frank’s forgotten us…. You will, too.”

“I could never forget you, Meggie, not as long as I live. And for my punishment I’m going to live a long, long time.” He got up and pulled her to her feet, put his arms about her loosely and affectionately. “I think this is goodbye, Meggie. We can’t be alone again.”

“If you hadn’t been a priest, Father, would you have married me?”

The title jarred. “Don’t call me that all the time! My name is Ralph.” Which didn’t answer her question.

Though he held her, he did not have any intention of kissing her. The face raised to his was nearly invisible, for the moon had set and it was very dark. He could feel her small, pointed breasts low down on his chest; a curious sensation, disturbing. Even more so was the fact that as naturally as if she came into a man’s arms every day of her life, her arms had gone up around his neck, and linked tightly.

He had never kissed anyone as a lover, did not want to now; nor, he thought, did Meggie. A warm salute on the cheek, a quick hug, as she would demand of her father were he to go away. She was sensitive and proud; he must have hurt her deeply when he held up her precious dreams to dispassionate inspection. Undoubtedly she was as eager to be done with the farewell as he was. Would it comfort her to know his pain was far worse than hers? As he bent his head to come at her cheek she raised herself on tiptoe, and more by luck than good management touched his lips with her own. He jerked back as if he tasted the spider’s poison, then he tipped his head forward before he could lose her, tried to say something against the sweet shut mouth, and in trying to answer she parted it. Her body seemed to lose all its bones, become fluid, a warm melting darkness; one of his arms was clamped round her waist, the other across her back with its hand on her skull, in her hair, holding her face up to his as if frightened she would go from him in that very moment, before he could grasp and catalogue this unbelievable presence who was Meggie. Meggie, and not Meggie, too alien to be familiar, for his Meggie wasn’t a woman, didn’t feel like a woman, could never be a woman to him. Just as he couldn’t be a man to her.

The thought overcame his drowning senses; he wrenched her arms from about his neck, thrust her away and tried to see her face in the darkness. But her head was down, she wouldn’t look at him.

“It’s time we were going, Meggie,” he said.

Without a word she turned to her horse, mounted and waited for him; usually it was he who waited for her.

Father Ralph had been right. At this time of year Drogheda was awash with roses, so the house was smothered in them. By eight that morning hardly one bloom was left in the garden. The first of the mourners began to arrive not long after the final rose was plundered from its bush; a light breakfast of coffee and freshly baked, buttered rolls was laid out in the small dining room. After Mary Carson was deposited in the vault a more substantial repast would be served in the big dining room, to fortify the departing mourners on their long ways home. The word had got around; no need to doubt the efficiency of the Gilly grapevine, which was the party line. While lips shaped conventional phrases, eyes and the minds behind them speculated, deduced, smiled slyly.

“I hear we’re going to lose you, Father,” said Miss Carmichael nastily.

He had never looked so remote, so devoid of human feeling as he did that morning in his laceless alb and dull black chasuble with silver cross. It was as if he attended only in body, while his spirit moved far away. But he looked down at Miss Carmichael absently, seemed to recollect himself, and smiled with genuine mirth.

“God moves in strange ways, Miss Carmichael,” he said, and went to speak to someone else.

What was on his mind no one could have guessed; it was the coming confrontation with Paddy over the will, and his dread of seeing Paddy’s rage, his need of Paddy’s rage and contempt.

Before he began the Requiem Mass he turned to face his congregation; the room was jammed, and reeked so of roses that open windows could not dissipate their heavy perfume.

“I do not intend to make a long eulogy,” he said in his clear, almost Oxford diction with its faint Irish underlay. “Mary Carson was known to you all. A pillar of the community, a pillar of the Church she loved more than any living being.”

At that point there were those who swore his eyes mocked, but others who maintained just as stoutly that they were dulled with a real and abiding grief.

“A pillar of the Church she loved more than any living being,” he repeated more clearly still; he was not one to turn away, either. “In her last hour she was alone, yet she was not alone. For in the hour of our death Our Lord Jesus Christ is with us, within us, bearing the burden of our agony. Not the greatest nor the humblest living being dies alone, and death is sweet. We are gathered here to pray for her immortal soul, that she whom we loved in life shall enjoy her just and eternal reward. Let us pray.”

The makeshift coffin was so covered in roses it could not be seen, and it rested upon a small wheeled cart the boys had cannibalized from various pieces of farm equipment. Even so, with the windows gaping open and the overpowering scent of roses, they could smell her. The doctor had been talking, too.

“When I reached Drogheda she was so rotten that I just couldn’t hold my stomach,” he said on the party line to Martin King. “I’ve never felt so sorry for anyone in all my life as I did then for Paddy Cleary, not only because he’s been done out of Drogheda but because he had to shove that awful seething heap in a coffin.”

“Then I’m not volunteering for the office of pallbearer,” Martin said, so faintly because of all the receivers down that the doctor had to make him repeat the statement three times before he understood it.

Hence the cart; no one was willing to shoulder the remains of Mary Carson across the lawn to the vault. And no one was sorry when the vault doors were closed on her and breathing could become normal at last.

While the mourners clustered in the big dining room eating, or trying to look as if they were eating, Harry Gough conducted Paddy, his family, Father Ralph, Mrs. Smith and the two maids to the drawing room. None of the mourners had any intention of going home yet, hence the pretense at eating; they wanted to be on hand to see what Paddy looked like when he came out after the reading of the will. To do him and his family justice, they hadn’t comported themselves during the funeral as if conscious of their elevated status. As good-hearted as ever, Paddy had wept for his sister, and Fee looked exactly as she always did, as if she didn’t care what happened to her.

“Paddy, I want you to contest,” Harry Gough said after he had read the amazing document through in a hard, indignant voice.

“The wicked old bitch!” said Mrs. Smith; though she liked the priest, she was fonder by far of the Clearys. They had brought babies and children into her life.

But Paddy shook his head. “No, Harry! I couldn’t do that. The property was hers, wasn’t it? She was quite entitled to do what she liked with it. If she wanted the Church to have it, she wanted the Church to have it. I don’t deny it’s a bit of a disappointment, but I’m just an ordinary sort of chap, so perhaps it’s for the best. I don’t think I’d like the responsibility of owning a property the size of Drogheda.”

“You don’t understand, Paddy!” the lawyer said in a slow, distinct voice, as if he were explaining to a child. “It isn’t just Drogheda I’m talking about. Drogheda was the least part of what your sister had to leave, believe me. She’s a major shareholder in a hundred gilt-edged companies, she owns steel factories and gold mines, she’s Michar Limited, with a ten-story office building all to herself in Sydney. She was worth more than anyone in the whole of Australia! Funny, she made me contact the Sydney directors of Michar Limited not four weeks ago, to find out the exact extent of her assets. When she died she was worth something over thirteen million pounds.”

“Thirteen million pounds!” Paddy said it as one says the distance from the earth to the sun, something totally incomprehensible. “That settles it, Harry. I don’t want the responsibility of that kind of money.”

“It’s no responsibility, Paddy! Don’t you understand yet? Money like that looks after itself! You’d have nothing to do with cultivating or harvesting it; there are hundreds of people employed simply to take care of it for you. Contest the will, Paddy, please! I’ll get you the best KCs in the country and I’ll fight it for you all the way to the Privy Council if necessary.”

Suddenly realizing that his family were as concerned as himself, Paddy turned to Bob and Jack, sitting together bewildered on a Florentine marble bench. “Boys, what do you say? Do you want to go after Auntie Mary’s thirteen million quid? If you do I’ll contest, not otherwise.”

“But we can live on Drogheda anyway, isn’t that what the will says?” Bob asked.

Harry answered. “No one can turn you off Drogheda so long as even one of your father’s grandchildren lives.”

“We’re going to live here in the big house, have Mrs. Smith and the girls to look after us, and earn a decent wage,” said Paddy as if he could hardly believe his good fortune rather than his bad.

“Then what more do we want, Jack?” Bob asked his brother. “Don’t you agree?”

“It suits me,” said Jack.

Father Ralph moved restlessly. He had not stopped to shed his Requiem vestments, nor had he taken a chair; like a dark and beautiful sorcerer he stood half in the shadows at the back of the room, isolated, his hands hidden beneath the black chasuble, his face still, and at the back of the distant blue eyes a horrified, stunned resentment. There was not even going to be the longed-for chastisement of rage or contempt; Paddy was going to hand it all to him on a golden plate of goodwill, and thank him for relieving the Clearys of a burden.

“What about Fee and Meggie?” the priest asked Paddy harshly. “Do you not think enough of your women to consult them, too?”

“Fee?” asked Paddy anxiously.

“Whatever you decide, Paddy. I don’t care.”

“Meggie?”

“I don’t want her thirteen million pieces of silver,” Meggie said, her eyes fixed on Father Ralph.

Paddy turned to the lawyer. “Then that’s it, Harry. We don’t want to contest the will. Let the Church have Mary’s money, and welcome.”

Harry struck his hands together. “God damn it, I hate to see you cheated!”

“I thank my stars for Mary,” said Paddy gently. “If it wasn’t for her I’d still be trying to scrape a living in New Zealand.”

As they came out of the drawing room Paddy stopped Father Ralph and held out his hand, in full view of the fascinated mourners clustering in the dining room doorway.

“Father, please don’t think there are any hard feelings on our side. Mary was never swayed by another human being in all her life, priest or brother or husband. You take it from me, she did what she wanted to do. You were mighty good to her, and you’ve been mighty good to us. We’ll never forget it.”

The guilt. The burden. Almost Father Ralph did not move to take that gnarled stained hand, but the cardinal’s brain won; he gripped it feverishly and smiled, agonized.

“Thank you, Paddy. You may rest assured I’ll see you never want for a thing.”

Within the week he was gone, not having appeared on Drogheda again. He spent the few days packing his scant belongings, and touring every station in the district where there were Catholic families; save Drogheda.

Father Watkin Thomas, late of Wales, arrived to assume the duties of parish priest to the Gillanbone district, while Father Ralph de Bricassart became private secretary to Archbishop Cluny Dark. But his work load was light; he had two undersecretaries. For the most part he was occupied in discovering just what and how much Mary Carson had owned, and in gathering the reins of government together on behalf of the Church.

6

There was no help for it, Meggie had to come home. Fee could not manage without her, and the moment he was left alone at the convent in Gilly, Stuart went on a hunger strike, so he too came back to Drogheda.

It was August, and bitterly cold. Just a year since they had arrived in Australia; but this was a colder winter than last. The rain was absent and the air was so crisp it hurt the lungs. Up on the tops of the Great Divide three hundred miles to the east, snow lay thicker than in many years, but no rain had fallen west of Burren Junction since the monsoonal drenching of the previous summer. People in Gilly were speaking of another drought: it was overdue, it must come, perhaps this would be it.

When Meggie saw her mother, she felt as if an awful weight settled upon her being; maybe a leaving-behind of childhood, a presentiment of what it was to be a woman. Outwardly there was no change, aside from the big belly; but inwardly Fee had slowed down like a tired old clock, running time down and down until it was forever stilled. The briskness Meggie had never known absent from her mother had gone. She picked her feet up and put them down again as if she was no longer sure of the right way to do it, a sort of spiritual fumbling got into her gait; and there was no joy in her for the coming baby, not even the rigidly controlled content she had shown over Hal.

That little red-haired fellow was toddling all over the house, constantly into everything, but Fee made no attempt to discipline him, or even supervise his activities. She plodded in her self-perpetuating circle of stove, worktable and sink as if nothing else existed. So Meggie had no choice; she simply filled the vacuum in the child’s life and became his mother. It wasn’t any sacrifice, for she loved him dearly and found him a helpless, willing target for all the love she was beginning to want to lavish on some human creature. He cried for her, he spoke her name before all others, he lifted his arms to her to be picked up; it was so satisfying it filled her with joy. In spite of the drudgery, the knitting and mending and sewing, the washing, the ironing, the hens, all the other jobs she had to do, Meggie found her life very pleasant.

No one ever mentioned Frank, but every six weeks Fee would lift her head when she heard the mail call, and for a while be animated. Then Mrs. Smith would bring in their share of whatever had come, and when it contained no letter from Frank the small burst of painful interest would die.

There were two new lives in the house. Fee was delivered of twins, two more tiny red-haired Cleary boys, christened James and Patrick. The dearest little fellows, with their father’s sunny disposition and his sweetness of nature, they became common property immediately they were born, for beyond giving them milk Fee took no interest in them. Soon their names were shortened to Jims and Patsy; they were prime favorites with the women up at the big house, the two spinster maids and the widowed childless housekeeper, who were starved for the deliciousness of babies. It was made magically easy for Fee to forget them—they had three very eager mothers—and as time went on it became the accepted thing that they should spend most of their waking hours up at the big house. Meggie just didn’t have time to take them under her wing as well as managing Hal, who was extremely possessive. Not for him the awkward, unpracticed blandishments of Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat. Meggie was the loving nucleus of Hal’s world; he wanted no one but Meggie, he would have no one but Meggie.

Bluey Williams traded in his lovely draft horses and his massive dray for a truck and the mail came every four weeks instead of every six, but there was never a word from Frank. And gradually his memory slipped a little, as memories do, even those with so much love attached to them; as if there is an unconscious healing process within the mind which mends up in spite of our desperate determination never to forget. To Meggie, an aching fading of the way Frank had looked, a blurring of the beloved lineaments to some fuzzy, saintlike image no more related to the real Frank than a holy-picture Christ to what must have been the Man. And to Fee, from out of those silent depths in which she had stilled the evolution of her soul, a substitution.

It came about so unobtrusively that no one noticed. For Fee kept herself folded up with quietness, and a total undemonstrativeness; the substitution was an inner thing no one had time to see, except the new object of her love, who made no outward sign. It was a hidden, unspoken thing between them, something to buffer their loneliness.

Perhaps it was inevitable, for of all her children Stuart was the only one like her. At fourteen he was as big a mystery to his father and brothers as Frank had been, but unlike Frank he engendered no hostility, no irritation. He did as he was told without complaint, worked as hard as anyone and created absolutely no ripples in the pool of Cleary life. Though his hair was red he was the darkest of all the boys, more mahogany and his eyes were as clear as pale water in the shade, as if they reached all the way back in time to the very beginning, and saw everything as it really was. He was also the only one of Paddy’s sons who promised adult handsomeness, though privately Meggie thought her Hal would outshine him when it came his turn to grow up. No one ever knew what Stuart was thinking; like Fee, he spoke little and never aired an opinion. And he had a curious knack of being utterly still, as still within himself as he was in body, and to Meggie, closest to him in age, it seemed he could go somewhere no one else could ever follow. Father Ralph expressed it another way.

“That lad isn’t human!” he had exclaimed the day he dumped a hunger-striking Stuart back at Drogheda after he was left at the convent minus Meggie. “Did he say he wanted to go home? Did he say he missed Meggie? No! He just stopped eating and patiently waited for the reason why to sink into our thick skulls. Not once did he open his mouth to complain, and when I marched up to him and yelled did he want to go home, he simply smiled at me and nodded!”

But as time went on it was tacitly assumed that Stuart would not go out into the paddocks to work with Paddy and the other boys, even though in age he might have. Stu would remain on guard at the house, chop the wood, take care of the vegetable garden, do the milking—the huge number of duties the women had no time for with three babies in the house. It was prudent to have a man about the place, albeit a half-grown one; it gave proof of other men close by. For there were visitors—the clump of strange boots up the plank steps to the back veranda, a strange voice saying:

“Hullo, Missus, got a bit of tucker for a man?”

The Outback had swarms of them, swagmen humping their blueys from station to station, down from Queensland and up from Victoria, men who had lost their luck or were chary of holding a regular job, preferring to tramp on foot thousands of miles in search of only they knew what. Mostly they were decent fellows, who appeared, ate a huge meal, packed a bit of donated tea and sugar and flour in the folds of their blueys, then disappeared down the track headed for Barcoola or Narrengang, battered old billycans bouncing, skinny dogs belly down behind them. Australian itinerants rarely rode; they walked.

Occasionally a bad man would come, on the lookout for women whose men were away; with a view to robbery, not rape. Thus Fee kept a shotgun standing loaded in a corner of the kitchen where the babies couldn’t get to it, and made sure she was closer to it than her visitor until her expert eye assessed his character. After Stuart was officially allotted the house as his domain, Fee passed the shotgun to him gladly.

Not all the visitors were swaggies, though they were in the majority; there was the Watkins man in his old model-T, for instance. He carried everything from horse liniment to fragrant soap unlike the rock-hard stuff Fee made in the laundry copper from fat and caustic; he had lavender water and eau de cologne, powders and creams for sun-dried faces. There were certain things one never dreamed of buying from anyone but the Watkins man; like his ointment, better by far than any drugstore or prescription salve, capable of healing anything from a rent in the side of a work dog to an ulcer on a human shin. The women would crowd around in every kitchen he visited, waiting eagerly for him to pop open his big suitcase of wares.

And there were other salesmen, less regular patrollers of the back-blocks than the Watkins man but equally welcome, hawking everything from tailor-made cigarettes and fancy pipes to whole bolts of material, sometimes even luridly seductive underwear and lavishly beribboned stays. They were so starved, these women of the Outback, limited to maybe one or two trips a year into the nearest town, far from the brilliant shops of Sydney, far from fashions and feminine furbelows.

Life seemed mostly flies and dust. There had not been any rain in a long time, even a sprinkle to settle the dust and drown the flies; for the less rain, the more flies, the more dust.

Every ceiling was festooned with long, lazily spinning helixes of sticky flypaper, black with bodies within a day of being tacked up. Nothing could be left uncovered for a moment without becoming either an orgy or a graveyard for the flies, and tiny speckles of fly dirt dewed the furniture, the walls, the Gillanbone General Store calendar.

And oh, the dust! There was no getting away from it, that fine-grained brown powder which seeped into even tightly lidded containers, dulled freshly washed hair, made the skin gritty, lay in the folds of clothes and curtains, smeared a film across polished tables which resettled the moment it was whisked away. The floors were thick with it, from carelessly wiped boots and the hot dry wind drifting it through the open doors and windows; Fee was forced to roll up her Persian carpets in the parlor and have Stuart nail down linoleum she bought sight unseen from the store in Gilly.

The kitchen, which took most of the traffic from outside, was floored in teak planks bleached to the color of old bones by endless scrubbing with a wire brush and lye soap. Fee and Meggie would strew it with sawdust Stuart carefully collected from the woodheap, sprinkle the sawdust with precious particles of water and sweep the damp, pungent-fragrant mess away out of doors, down off the veranda onto the vegetable garden, there to decompose itself to humus.

But nothing kept the dust at bay for long, and after a while the creek dried up to a string of waterholes, so that there was no water to be pumped up from it to kitchen or bathroom. Stuart took the tank truck out to the borehead and brought it back full, emptied it into one of the spare rain tanks, and the women had to get used to a different kind of horrible water on dishes and clothes and bodies, worse than muddy creek water. The rank, sulphur-smelling minerally stuff had to be wiped off dishes scrupulously, and made the hair dull and coarse, like straw. What little rain water they had was used strictly for drinking and cooking.

Father Ralph watched Meggie tenderly. She was brushing Patsy’s curly red head, Jims standing obediently but a little rockily waiting for his turn, both pairs of bright blue eyes turned up to her adoringly. Just like a tiny mother, she was. It had to be a thing born in them, he mused, that peculiar obsession women had for infants, else at her age she would have regarded it as a duty rather than pure pleasure, and been off to do something more alluring as fast as she could. Instead she was deliberately prolonging the process, crimping Patsy’s hair between her fingers to shape waves out of its unruliness. For a while the priest was charmed with her activity, then he whacked the side of his dusty boot with his crop and stared moodily off the veranda toward the big house, hidden by its ghost gums and vines, the profusion of station buildings and pepper trees which lay between its isolation and this hub of station life, the head stockman’s residence. What plot was she weaving, that old spider up there at the center of her vast web?

“Father, you’re not watching!” Meggie accused him.

“I’m sorry, Meggie. I was thinking.” He turned back to her as she finished with Jims; the three of them stood watching him expectantly until he bent and scooped the twins up, one on either hip. “Let’s go and see your Auntie Mary, shall we?”

Meggie followed him up the track carrying his crop and leading the chestnut mare; he toted the infants with easy familiarity and seemed not to mind, though it was almost a mile from the creek to the big house. At the cookhouse he relinquished the twins to an ecstatic Mrs. Smith and passed on up the walkway to the main house with Meggie by his side.

Mary Carson was sitting in her wing chair. She hardly ever moved from it these days; there was not the necessity any more with Paddy so capable of overseeing things. As Father Ralph came in holding Meggie’s hand, her malevolent gaze beat the child’s down; Father Ralph felt the increase in Meggie’s pulse rate and squeezed her wrist sympathetically. The little girl dropped her aunt a clumsy curtsy, murmuring an inaudible greeting.

“Go to the kitchen, girl, have your tea with Mrs. Smith,” said Mary Carson curtly.

“Why don’t you like her?” Father Ralph asked as he sank into the chair he had come to think of as his own.

“Because you do,” she answered.

“Oh, come now!” For once she made him feel at a loss. “She’s just a waif, Mary.”

“That’s not what you see in her, and you know it.”

The fine blue eyes rested on her sardonically; he was more at ease. “Do you think I tamper with children? I am, after all, a priest!”

“You’re a man first, Ralph de Bricassart! Being a priest makes you feel safe, that’s all.”

Startled, he laughed. Somehow he couldn’t fence with her today; it was as if she had found the chink in his armor, crept inside with her spider’s poison. And he was changing, growing older perhaps, becoming reconciled to obscurity in Gillanbone. The fires were dying; or was it that he burned now for other things?

“I am not a man,” he said. “I am a priest…. It’s the heat, maybe, the dust and the flies…. But I am not a man, Mary. I’m a priest.”

“Oh, Ralph, how you’ve changed!” she mocked. “Can this be Cardinal de Bricassart I hear?”

“It isn’t possible,” he said, a passing unhappiness in his eyes. “I don’t think I want it anymore.”

She began to laugh, rocking back and forth in her chair, watching him. “Don’t you, Ralph? Don’t you? Well, I’ll let you stew a little while longer, but your day of reckoning is coming, never doubt it. Not yet, not for two or three years, perhaps, but it will come. I’ll be like the Devil, and offer you—Enough said! But never doubt I’ll make you writhe. You’re the most fascinating man I’ve ever met. You throw your beauty in our teeth, contemptuous of our foolishness. But I’ll pin you to the wall on your own weakness, I’ll make you sell yourself like any painted whore. Do you doubt it?”

He leaned back, smiling. “I don’t doubt you’ll try. But I don’t think you know me as well as you think you do.”

“Do I not? Time will tell, Ralph, and only time. I’m old; I have nothing but time left to me.”

“And what do you think I have?” he asked. “Time, Mary, nothing but time. Time, and dust, and flies.”

The clouds heaped themselves in the sky, and Paddy began to hope for rain.

“Dry storms,” said Mary Carson. “We won’t get rain out of this. We won’t get any rain for a long time.”

If the Clearys thought they had seen the worst that Australia could offer in the way of climatic harshness, it was because they hadn’t yet experienced the dry storms of drought-dogged plains. Bereft of soothing dampness, the dryness of the earth and the air rubbed each other raw and crackling, an irritating friction which built up and up and up until it could end only in a gargantuan dissipation of accumulated energy. The sky dropped and darkened so much Fee had to light the lamps indoors; out in the stockyards the horses shivered and jumped at the slightest noise; the hens sought their perches and sank their heads into apprehensive breasts; the dogs fought and snarled; the tame pigs which rooted among the rubbish of the station dump burrowed their snouts into the dust and peered out of it with bright, skittish eyes. Brooding forces pent in the heavens struck fear into the bones of all living things, as the vast deep clouds swallowed the sun whole and prepared to spew solar fire over the earth.

Thunder came marching from far away with increasing tread, tiny flickers on the horizon cast soaring billows into sharp relief, crests of startling whiteness foamed and curled over midnight-blue depths. Then, with a roaring wind that sucked up the dust and flung it stinging in eyes and ears and mouths, came the cataclysm. No longer did they try to imagine the biblical wrath of God; they lived through it. No man could have kept himself from jumping when the thunder cracked—it exploded with the noise and fury of a disintegrating world—but after a while the assembled household grew so inured to it they crept out onto the veranda and stared across the creek at the far paddocks. Great forks of lightning stood ribbed in veins of fire all around the sky, dozens of bolts each and every moment; naphtha flashes in chains streaked across the clouds, in and out the billows in a fantastic hide-and-seek. Blasted trees alone in the grass reeked and smoked, and they understood at last why these lonely paddock sentinels were dead.

An eerie, unearthly glow seeped into the air, air which was no longer invisible but on fire from within, fluorescing pink and lilac and sulphur yellow, and smelling of some hauntingly sweet, elusive perfume quite beyond recognition. The trees shimmered, the red Cleary hair was haloed in tongues of fire, the hairs of their arms stood out stiffly. And all afternoon it went on, only slowly fading into the east to release them from its awesome spell at sunset, and they were excited, on edge, unappeased. Not a drop of rain had fallen. But it was like dying and coming back to life again, to have survived the atmospheric tantrum unscathed; it was all they could talk about for a week.

“We’ll get a lot more,” said Mary Carson, bored.

They did get a lot more. The second dry winter came in colder than they had thought it could get without snow; frost settled inches thick on the ground at night, and the dogs huddled shivering in their kennels, keeping warm by gorging on kangaroo meat and mounds of fat from the homestead’s slaughtered cattle. At least the weather meant beef and pork to eat instead of the eternal mutton. In the house they built great roaring fires, and the men were forced to come home when they could, for at night in the paddocks they froze. But the shearers when they arrived were in a mood for rejoicing; they could get through faster and sweat less. At each man’s stand in the great shed was a circle of flooring much lighter in color than the rest, the spot where fifty years of shearers had stood dripping their bleaching sweat into the wood of the board.

There was still grass from the flood long ago, but it was thinning ominously. Day after day the skies were overcast and the light dull, but it never rained. The wind howled sadly across the paddocks, spinning drifting brown sheets of dust before it like rain, tormenting the mind with images of water. So much like rain it looked, that raggedly blowing dust.

The children developed chilblains on their fingers, tried not to smile with cracked lips, had to peel their socks away from bleeding heels and shins. It was quite impossible to keep warm in the face of that bitter high wind, especially when the houses had been designed to catch every stray puff of air, not keep it out. Going to bed in icy bedrooms, getting up in icy bedrooms, waiting patiently for Mum to spare a little hot water from the great kettle on the hob so that washing was not a teeth-chattering, painful ordeal.

One day small Hal started to cough and wheeze, and rapidly grew worse. Fee mixed up a gluey hot poultice of charcoal and spread it on his laboring little chest, but it seemed to give him no relief. At first she was not unduly worried, but as the day drew on he began to deteriorate so quickly she no longer had any idea what to do, and Meggie sat by his side wringing her hands, praying a wordless stream of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. When Paddy came in at six the child’s breathing was audible from the veranda, and his lips were blue.

Paddy set off at once for the big house and the telephone, but the doctor was forty miles away and out on another case. They ignited a pan of sulphur and held him over it in an attempt to make him cough up the membrane in his throat slowly choking him, but he could not manage to contract his rib cage enough to dislodge it. His color was growing a deeper blue, his respiration was convulsive. Meggie sat holding him and praying, her heart squeezed to a wedge of pain because the poor little fellow fought so for every breath. Of all the children, Hal was the dearest to her; she was his mother. Never before had she wished so desperately to be a grown-up mother, thinking that were she a woman like Fee, she would somehow have the power to heal him. Fee couldn’t heal him because Fee wasn’t his mother. Confused and terrified, she held the heaving little body close, trying to help Hal breathe.

It never occurred to her that he might die, even when Fee and Paddy sank to their knees by the bed and prayed, not knowing what else to do. At midnight Paddy pried Meggie’s arms from around the still child, and laid him down tenderly against the stack of pillows.

Meggie’s eyes flew open; she had half fallen to sleep, lulled because Hal had stopped struggling. “Oh, Daddy, he’s better!” she said.

Paddy shook his head; he seemed shriveled and old, the lamp picking up frosty bits in his hair, frosty bits in his week-long beard. “No, Meggie, Hal’s not better in the way you mean, but he’s at peace. He’s gone to God, he’s out of his pain.”

“Daddy means he’s dead,” said Fee tonelessly.

“Oh, Daddy, no! He can’t be dead!”

But the small creature in the pillowed nest was dead. Meggie knew it the moment she looked, though she had never seen death before. He looked like a doll, not a child. She got up and went out to the boys, sitting hunched in an uneasy vigil around the kitchen fire, with Mrs. Smith on a hard chair nearby keeping an eye on the tiny twins, whose cot had been moved into the kitchen for warmth.

“Hal just died,” said Meggie.

Stuart looked up from a distant reverie. “It’s better so,” he said. “Think of the peace.” He got to his feet as Fee came out of the hallway, and went to her without touching her. “Mum, you must be tired. Come and lie down; I’ll light a fire for you in your room. Come on now, lie down.”

Fee turned and followed him without a word. Bob got up and went out onto the veranda. The rest of the boys sat shuffling for a while and then joined him. Paddy hadn’t appeared at all. Without a word Mrs. Smith took the perambulator from its corner of the veranda and carefully put the sleeping Jims and Patsy into it. She looked across at Meggie, tears running down her face.

“Meggie, I’m going back to the big house, and I’m taking Jims and Patsy with me. I’ll be back in the morning, but it’s best if the babies stay with Minnie and Cat and me for a while. Tell your mother.”

Meggie sat down on a vacant chair and folded her hands in her lap. Oh, he was hers and he was dead! Little Hal, whom she had cared for and loved and mothered. The space in her mind he had occupied was not yet empty; she could still feel the warm weight of him against her chest. It was terrible to know the weight would never rest there again, where she had felt it for four long years. No, not a thing to cry over; tears were for Agnes, for wounds in the fragile sheath of self-esteem, and the childhood she had left behind forever. This was a burden she would have to carry until the end of her days, and continue in spite of it. The will to survive is very strong in some, not so strong in others. In Meggie it was as refined and tensile as a steel hawser.

Just so did Father Ralph find her when he came in with the doctor. She pointed silently to the hallway but made no effort to follow them. And it was a long time before the priest could finally do what he had wanted to do since Mary Carson phoned the presbytery; go to Meggie, be with her, give the poor little female outsider something from himself for her very own. He doubted that anyone else fully appreciated what Hal meant to her.

But it was a long time. There were the last rites to be administered, in case the soul had not yet left the body; and Fee to see, Paddy to see, practical advice to give. The doctor had gone, dejected but long used to the tragedies his far-flung practice made inevitable. From what they said, little he could have done anyway, so far from his hospital and his trained nursing staff. These people took their chances, they faced their demons and hung on. His death certificate would say “Croup.” It was a handy malady.

Eventually there was nothing left for Father Ralph to see to. Paddy had gone to Fee, Bob and the boys to the carpentry shed to make the little coffin. Stuart was on the floor in Fee’s bedroom, his pure profile so like her own silhouetted against the night sky outside the window; from where she lay on her pillow with Paddy’s hand in hers, Fee never left her contemplation of the dark shape huddled on the cold floor. It was five o’clock in the morning and the roosters were stirring drowsily, but it would be dark for a long time yet.

Purple stole around his neck because he had forgotten he was wearing it, Father Ralph bent to the kitchen fire and built it up from embers into a blaze, turned down the lamp on the table behind, and sat on a wooden bench opposite Meggie to watch her. She had grown, put on seven-league boots which threatened to leave him behind, outstripped; he felt his inadequacy then more keenly, watching her, than ever he had in a life filled with a gnawing, obsessive doubt of his courage. Only what was he afraid of? What did he think he couldn’t face if it came? He could be strong for other people, he didn’t fear other people; but within himself, expecting that nameless something to come sliding into consciousness when he least expected it, he knew fear. While Meggie, born eighteen years after him, was growing beyond him.

Not that she was a saint, or indeed anything more than most. Only that she never complained, that she had the gift—or was it the curse?—of acceptance. No matter what had gone or what might come, she confronted it and accepted it, stored it away to fuel the furnace of her being. What had taught her that? Could it be taught? Or was his idea of her a figment of his own fantasies? Did it really matter? Which was more important: what she truly was, or what he thought she was?

“Oh, Meggie,” he said helplessly.

She turned her gaze to him and out of her pain gave him a smile of absolute, overflowing love, nothing in it held back, the taboos and inhibitions of womanhood not yet a part of her world. To be so loved shook him, consumed him, made him wish to the God Whose existence he sometimes doubted that he was anyone in the universe but Ralph de Bricassart. Was this it, the unknown thing? Oh, God, why did he love her so? But as usual no one answered him; and Meggie sat still smiling at him.

At dawn Fee got up to make breakfast, Stuart helping her, then Mrs. Smith came back with Minnie and Cat, and the four women stood together by the stove talking in hushed monotones, bound in some league of grief neither Meggie nor the priest understood. After the meal Meggie went to line the little wooden box the boys had made, planed smooth and varnished. Silently Fee had given her a white satin evening gown long since gone to the hue of ivory with age, and she fitted strips of it to the hard contours of the box interior. While Father Ralph put a toweling padding in it she ran the pieces of satin into shape on the sewing machine, then together they fixed the lining in place with thumbtacks. And after that Fee dressed her baby in his best velvet suit, combed his hair and laid him in the soft nest which smelled of her, but not of Meggie, who had been his mother. Paddy closed down the lid, weeping; this was the first child he had lost.

For years the reception room at Drogheda had been in use as a chapel; an altar had been built at one end, and was draped in golden raiment Mary Carson had paid the nuns of St. Mary d’Urso a thousand pounds to embroider. Mrs. Smith had decked the room and the altar with winter flowers from Drogheda’s gardens, wallflowers and early stocks and late roses, masses of them like pink and rusty paintings magically finding the dimension of scent. In a laceless white alb and a black chasuble free of any ornamentation, Father Ralph said the Requiem Mass.

As with most of the great Outback stations, Drogheda buried its dead on its own land. The cemetery lay beyond the gardens by the willow-littered banks of the creek, bounded by a white-painted wrought-iron railing and green even in this dry time, for it was watered from the homestead tanks. Michael Carson and his baby son were entombed there in an imposing marble vault, a life-size angel on top of its pediment with sword drawn to guard their rest. But perhaps a dozen less pretentious plots ringed the mausoleum, marked only by plain white wooden crosses and white croquet hoops to define their neat boundaries, some of them bare even of a name: a shearer with no known relatives who had died in a barracks brawl; two or three swaggies whose last earthly calling place had been Drogheda; some sexless and totally anonymous bones found in one of the paddocks; Michael Carson’s Chinese cook, over whose remains stood a quaint scarlet umbrella, whose sad small bells seemed perpetually to chime out the name Hee Sing, Hee Sing, Hee Sing; a drover whose cross said only TANKSTAND CHARLIE HE WAS A GOOD BLOKE; and more besides, some of them women. But such simplicity was not for Hal, the owner’s nephew; they stowed his homemade box on a shelf inside the vault and closed elaborate bronze doors upon it.

After a while everyone ceased to speak of Hal except in passing. Meggie’s sorrow she kept exclusively to herself; her pain had the unreasoning desolation peculiar to children, magnified and mysterious, yet her very youth buried it beneath everyday events, and diminished its importance. The boys were little affected save Bob, who had been old enough to be fond of his tiny brother. Paddy grieved deeply, but no one knew whether Fee grieved. It seemed she grew further and further away from husband and children, from all feeling. Because of this, Paddy was so grateful to Stu for the way he minded his mother, the grave tenderness with which he treated her. Only Paddy knew how Fee had looked the day he came back from Gilly without Frank. There had not been a flicker of emotion in those soft grey eyes, not hardening nor accusation, hate or sorrow. As if she had simply been waiting for the blow to fall like a condemned dog for the killing bullet, knowing her fate and powerless to avoid it.

“I knew he wouldn’t come back,” she said.

“Maybe he will, Fee, if you write to him quickly,” Paddy said.

She shook her head, but being Fee went into no explanations. Better that Frank made a new life for himself far from Drogheda and her. She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence. Paddy hadn’t been the man of her choice, but a better man than Paddy never lived. She was one of those people whose feelings are so intense they become unbearable, unlivable, and her lesson had been a harsh one. For almost twenty-five years she had been crushing emotion out of existence, and she was convinced that in the end persistence would succeed.

Life went on in the rhythmic, endless cycle of the land; the following summer the rains came, not monsoonal but a by-product of them, filling the creek and the tanks, succoring the thirsting grass roots, sponging away the stealthy dust. Almost weeping in joy, the men went about the business of the patterned seasons, secure in the knowledge they would not have to hand-feed the sheep. The grass had lasted just long enough, eked out by scrub-cutting from the more juicy trees; but it was not so on all the Gilly stations. How many stock a station carried depended entirely on the grazier running it. For its great size Drogheda was under-stocked, which meant the grass lasted just that much longer.

Lambing and the hectic weeks that followed it were busiest of all in the sheep calendar. Every lamb born had to be caught; its tail was ringed, its ear marked, and if it was a male not required for breeding it was also castrated. Filthy, abominable work which soaked them to the skin with blood, for there was only one way to wade through thousands upon thousands of male lambs in the short time available. The testicles were popped out between the fingers and bitten off, spat on the ground. Circled by tin bands incapable of expanding, the tails of male and female lambs alike gradually lost their vital bloody supply, swelled, withered and dropped off.

These were the finest wool sheep in the world, raised on a scale unheard of in any other country, and with a paucity of manpower. Everything was geared to the perfect production of perfect wool. There was crutching; around the sheep’s rear end the wool grew foul with excrement, fly-blown, black and lumped together in what were called dags. This area had to be kept shaven close, or crutched. It was a minor shearing job but one far less pleasing, stinking and fly-ridden, and it paid better rates. Then there was dipping: thousands upon thousands of bleating, leaping creatures were hounded and yanked through a maze of runs, in and out of the phenyl dips which rid them of ticks, pests and vermin. And drenching: the administration of medicine through huge syringes rammed down the throat, to rid the sheep of intestinal parasites.

For work with the sheep never, never ended; as one job finished it became time for another. They were mustered and graded, moved from one paddock to another, bred and unbred, shorn and crutched, dipped and drenched, slaughtered and shipped off to be sold. Drogheda carried about a thousand head of prime beef cattle as well as its sheep, but sheep were far more profitable, so in good times Drogheda carried about one sheep for every two acres of its land, or about 125,000 altogether. Being merinos, they were never sold for meat; at the end of a merino’s wool-producing years it was shipped off to become skins, lanolin, tallow and glue, useful only to the tanneries and the knackeries.

Thus it was that gradually the classics of Bush literature took on meaning. Reading had become more important than ever to the Clearys, isolated from the world on Drogheda; their only contact with it was through the magic written word. But there was no lending library close, as there had been in Wahine, no weekly trip into town for mail and newspapers and a fresh stack of library books, as there had been in Wahine. Father Ralph filled the breach by plundering the Gillanbone library, his own and the convent’s shelves, and found to his astonishment that before he was done he had organized a whole Bush circulating library via Bluey Williams and the mail truck. It was perpetually loaded with books—worn, thumbed volumes which traveled down the tracks between Drogheda and Bugela, Dibban-Dibban and Braich y Pwll, Cunnamutta and Each-Uisge, seized upon gratefully by minds starved for sustenance and escape. Treasured stories were always returned with great reluctance, but Father Ralph and the nuns kept a careful record of what books stayed longest where, then Father Ralph would order copies through the Gilly news agency and blandly charge them to Mary Carson as donations to the Holy Cross Bush Bibliophilic Society.

Those were the days when a book was lucky to contain a chaste kiss, when the senses were never titillated by erotic passages, so that the demarcation line between books meant for adults and those meant for older children was less strictly drawn, and there was no disgrace for a man of Paddy’s age to love best the books his children also adored: Dot and the Kangaroo, the Billabong series about Jim and Norah and Wally, Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s immortal We of the Never-Never. In the kitchen at night they would take turns to read the poems of Banjo Paterson and C. J. Dennis out loud, thrilling to the ride of “The Man from Snowy River,” or laughing with “The Sentimental Bloke” and his Doreen, or wiping away surreptitious tears shed for John O’Hara’s “Laughing Mary.”

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago;

He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just on spec, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of the Overflow.”

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected

(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar);

’Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy

Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the Western drovers go;

As the stock are slowly stringing Clancy rides behind them singing,

For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

“Clancy of the Overflow” was everyone’s favorite, “the Banjo” their favorite poet. Hoppity-go-kick doggerel, perhaps, but the poems had never been intended for the eyes of sophisticated savants; they were for the people, of the people, and more Australians of that day could recite them off by heart than knew the standard schoolroom pieces by Tennyson and Wordsworth, for their brand of hoppity-go-kick doggerel was written with England as inspiration. Crowds of daffodils and fields of asphodel meant nothing to the Clearys, living in a climate where neither could exist.

The Clearys understood the bush poets better than most, for the Overflow was their backyard, the traveling sheep a reality on the TSRs. There was an official Traveling Stock Route or TSR winding its way near the Barwon River, free crown land for the transference of living merchandise from one end of the eastern half of the continent to the other. In the old days drovers and their hungry, grass-ruining mobs of stock had not been welcome, and the bullockies a hated breed as they inched their mammoth teams of from twenty to eighty oxen through the middle of the squatters’ best grazing. Now, with official stock routes for the drovers and the bullockies vanished into legend, things were more amicable between vagabonds and stay-puts.

The occasional drovers were welcomed as they rode in for a beer and a talk, a home-cooked meal. Sometimes they brought women with them, driving battered old sulkies with galled ex-stock horses between the shafts, pots and billies and bottles banging and clanking in a fringe all around. These were the most cheerful or the most morose women in the Outback, drifting from Kynuna to the Paroo, from Goondiwindi to Gundagai, from the Katherine to the Curry. Strange women; they never knew a roof over their heads or the feel of a kapok mattress beneath their iron-hard spines. No man had bested them; they were as tough and enduring as the country which flowed under their restless feet. Wild as the birds in the sun-drenched trees, their children skulked shyly behind the sulky wheels or scuttled for the protection of the woodheap while their parents yarned over cups of tea, swapped tall stories and books, promised to pass on vague messages to Hoopiron Collins or Brumby Waters, and told the fantastic tale of the Pommy jackaroo on Gnarlunga. And somehow you could be sure these rootless wanderers had dug a grave, buried a child or a wife, a husband or a mate, under some never-to-be-forgotten coolibah on a stretch of the TSR which only looked the same to those who didn’t know how hearts could mark out as singular and special one tree in a wilderness of trees.

Meggie was ignorant even of the meaning of a phrase as hackneyed as “the facts of life,” for circumstances had conspired to block every avenue whereby she might have learned. Her father drew a rigid line between the males of the family and the females; subjects like breeding or mating were never discussed in front of the women, nor did the men ever appear in front of the women unless fully clothed. The kind of books that might have given her a clue never appeared on Drogheda, and she had no friends of her own age to contribute to her education. Her life was absolutely harnessed to the needs of the house, and around the house there were no sexual activities at all. The Home Paddock creatures were almost literally sterile. Mary Carson didn’t breed horses, she bought them from Martin King of Bugela, who did; unless one bred horses stallions were a nuisance, so Drogheda didn’t have any stallions. It did have a bull, a wild and savage beast whose pen was strictly out of bounds, and Meggie was so frightened of it she never went anywhere near it. The dogs were kept kenneled and chained, their mating a scientific, supervised exercise conducted under Paddy’s or Bob’s eagle eye, therefore also out of bounds. Nor was there time to watch the pigs, which Meggie hated and resented having to feed. In truth, there wasn’t time for Meggie to watch anyone beyond her two tiny brothers. And ignorance breeds ignorance; an unawakened body and mind sleep through events which awareness catalogues automatically.

Just before Meggie’s fifteenth birthday, as the summer heat was building up toward its stupefying peak, she noticed brown, streaky stains on her drawers. After a day or two they went away, but six weeks later they came back, and her shame turned to terror. The first time she had thought them signs of a dirty bottom, thus her mortification, but in their second appearance they became unmistakably blood. She had no idea where the blood was coming from, but assumed it was her bottom. The slow hemorrhage was gone three days later, and did not recur for over two months; her furtive washing of the drawers had gone unnoticed, for she did most of the laundry anyway. The next attack brought pain, the first non-bilious rigors of her life. And the bleeding was worse, far worse. She stole some of the twins’ discarded diapers and tried to bind herself under her drawers, terrified the blood would come through.

Death taking Hal had been like a tempestuous visit from something ghostly; but this strung-out cessation of her own being was terrifying. How could she possibly go to Fee or Paddy to break the news that she was dying from some disreputable, forbidden disease of the bottom? Only to Frank might she have poured out her torment, but Frank was so far away she didn’t know where to find him. She had listened to the women talk over their cups of tea of tumors and cancers, gruesome lingering deaths their friends or mothers or sisters had endured, and it seemed to Meggie sure to be some kind of growth eating her insides away, chewing silently up toward her frightened heart. Oh, she didn’t want to die!

Her ideas about the condition of death were vague; she wasn’t even clear on what her status would be in that incomprehensible other world. Religion to Meggie was a set of laws rather than a spiritual experience, it couldn’t help her at all. Words and phrases jostled piecemeal in her panicked consciousness, uttered by her parents, their friends, the nuns, priests in sermons, bad men in books threatening vengeance. There was no way she could come to terms with death; she lay night after night in a confused terror, trying to imagine if death was perpetual night, or an abyss of flames she had to jump over to reach the golden fields on the far side, or a sphere like the inside of a gigantic balloon full of soaring choirs and light attenuated through limitless stained-glass windows.

She grew very quiet, but in a manner quite different from Stuart’s peaceful, dreamy isolation; hers was the petrified freezing of an animal caught in the serpent’s basilisk stare. If she was spoken to suddenly she jumped, if the little ones cried for her she fussed over them in an agony of expiation for her neglect. And whenever she had a rare moment to herself she ran away, down to the cemetery and Hal, who was the only dead person she knew.

Everyone noticed the change in her, but accepted it as Meggie growing up without once asking themselves what growing up for Meggie entailed; she hid her distress too well. The old lessons had been well learned; her self-control was phenomenal and her pride formidable. No one must ever know what went on inside her, the façade must continue flawless to the end; from Fee to Frank to Stuart the examples were there, and she was of the same blood, it was a part of her nature and her heritage.

But as Father Ralph paid his frequent visits to Drogheda and the change in Meggie deepened from a pretty feminine metamorphosis to a quenching of all her vitality, his concern for her mushroomed into worry, and then into fear. A physical and spiritual wasting away was taking place beneath his very eyes; she was slipping away from them, and he couldn’t bear to see her become another Fee. The small pointed face was all eyes staring at some dreadful prospect, the milky opaque skin which never tanned or freckled was growing more translucent. If the process went on, he thought, she would one day disappear into her own eyes like a snake swallowing its tail, until she drifted through the universe as an almost invisible shaft of glassy grey light, seen only from the corner of the vision where shadows lurk and black things crawl down a white wall.

Well, he would find out if he had to wring it from her forcibly. Mary Carson was at her most demanding these days, jealous of every moment he spent down at the head stockman’s house; only the infinite patience of a subtle, devious man kept his rebellion against her possessiveness hidden from her. Even his alien pre-occupation with Meggie couldn’t always overcome his politic wisdom, the purring content he derived from watching his charm work on such a cantankerous, refractory subject as Mary Carson. While that long-dormant care for the welfare of a single other person champed and stamped up and down his mind, he acknowledged the existence of another entity dwelling side by side with it: the cat-cold cruelty of getting the better of, making a fool of a conceited, masterful woman. Oh, he’d always liked to do that! The old spider would never get the better of him.

Eventually he managed to shake free of Mary Carson and run Meggie to earth in the little graveyard under the shadow of the pallid, unwarlike avenging angel. She was staring up into its mawkishly placid face with shrinking fear written on her own, an exquisite contrast between the feeling and the unfeeling, he thought. But what was he doing here, chasing after her like a clucky old hen when it was really none of his business, when it ought to be her mother or her father to find out what was the matter? Only that they hadn’t seen anything wrong, that she didn’t matter to them the way she mattered to him. And that he was a priest, he must give comfort to the lonely or the despairing in spirit. He couldn’t bear to see her unhappy, yet he shrank from the way he was tying himself to her by an accumulation of events. He was making a whole arsenal of happenings and memories out of her, and he was afraid. His love for her and his priestly instinct to offer himself in any required spiritual capacity warred with an obsessive horror of becoming utterly necessary to someone human, and of having someone human become utterly necessary to himself.

As she heard him walk across the grass she turned to confront him, folding her hands in her lap and looking down at her feet. He sat near her, arms locked around his knees, the soutane in folds no more graceful than the easy length of the body inhabiting it. No sense beating around the bush, he decided; if she could, she would evade him.

“What’s the matter, Meggie?”

“Nothing, Father.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Please, Father, please! I can’t tell you!”

“Oh, Meggie! Ye of little faith! You can tell me anything, anything under the sun. That’s what I’m here for, that’s why I’m a priest. I am Our Lord’s chosen representative here on earth, I listen on His behalf, I even forgive on His behalf. And, wee Meggie, there is nothing in God’s universe He and I cannot find it in our hearts to forgive. You must tell me what the matter is, my love, because if anyone can help you, I can. As long as I live I’ll try to help you, watch over you. If you like, a sort of guardian angel, better by far than that chunk of marble above your head.” He took a breath and leaned forward. “Meggie, if you love me, tell me!”

Her hands gripped one another. “Father, I’m dying! I’ve got cancer!”

First came a wild desire to laugh, a great surge of uproarious anticlimax; then he looked at the thin blue skin, the wasting of her little arms, and there came an awful longing to weep and cry, scream of its unfairness to the roof of heaven. No, Meggie wouldn’t imagine this out of nothing; there had to be a valid reason.

“How do you know, dear heart?”

It took her a long time to say it, and when she did he had to bend his head right down to her lips in an unconscious parody of the confessional pose, hand shielding his face from her eyes, finely modeled ear presented for the sullying.

“It’s six months, Father, since it started. I get the most awful pains in my tummy, but not like a bilious attack, and—oh, Father!—a lot of blood runs out of my bottom!”

His head reared back, something which had never happened inside the confessional; he stared down at her shamed bent head with so many emotions assaulting him that he could not marshal his wits. An absurd, delicious relief; an anger at Fee so great he wanted to kill her; awed admiration for such a little thing as her, to bear so much so well; and a ghastly, all-pervasive embarrassment.

He was as much a prisoner of the times as she was. The cheap girls in every town he had known from Dublin to Gillanbone would deliberately come into the confessional to whisper their fantasies to him as actual happenings, concerned with the only facet of him which interested them, his manhood, and not willing to admit it lay beyond their power to arouse it. They muttered of men violating every orifice, of illicit games with other girls, of lust and adultery, one or two of superior imagination even going so far as to detail sexual relations with a priest. And he would listen totally unmoved save for a sick contempt, for he had been through the rigors of the seminary and that particular lesson was an easy one for a man of his type. But the girls, never, never mentioned that secret activity which set them apart, demeaned them.

Try as he would, he could not prevent the scorching tide from diffusing up under his skin; Father Ralph de Bricassart sat with his face turned away behind his hand and writhed through the humiliation of his first blush.

But this wasn’t helping his Meggie. When he was sure the color had subsided he got to his feet, picked her up and sat her on a flat-topped marble pedestal, where her face and his were level.

“Meggie, look at me. No, look at me!”

She raised hunted eyes and saw that he was smiling; an immeasurable contentment filled her soul at once. He would not smile so if she were dying; she knew very well how much she meant to him, for he had never concealed it.

“Meggie, you’re not dying and you haven’t got cancer. It isn’t my place to tell you what’s the matter, but I think I had better. Your mother should have told you years ago, prepared you, and why she didn’t is beyond me.”

He looked up at the inscrutable marble angel above him and gave a peculiar, half-strangled laugh. “Dear Jesus! The things Thou givest me to do!” Then, to the waiting Meggie: “In years to come, as you grow older and learn more about the ways of the world, you might be tempted to remember today with embarrassment, even shame. But don’t remember today like that, Meggie. There’s absolutely nothing shameful or embarrassing about it. In this, as in everything I do, I am simply the instrument of Our Lord. It is my only function on this earth; I must admit no other. You were very frightened, you needed help, and Our Lord has sent you that help in my person. Remember that alone, Meggie. I am Our Lord’s priest, and I speak in His Name.

“You’re only doing what all women do, Meggie. Once a month for several days you’ll pass blood. It starts usually around twelve or thirteen years of age—how old are you, as much as that?”

“I’m fifteen, Father.”

“Fifteen? You?” He shook his head, only half believing her. “Well, if you say you are, I’ll have to take your word for it. In which case you’re later than most girls. But it continues every month until you’re about fifty, and in some women it’s as regular as the phases of the moon, in others it’s not so predictable. Some women have no pain with it, others suffer a lot of pain. No one knows why it’s so different from one woman to another. But to pass blood every month is a sign that you’re mature. Do you know what ‘mature’ means?”

“Of course, Father! I read! It means grown up.”

“All right, that will do. While ever the bleeding persists, you’re capable of having children. The bleeding is a part of the cycle of procreation. In the days before the Fall, it is said Eve didn’t menstruate. The proper name for it is menstruation, to menstruate. But when Adam and Eve fell, God punished the woman more than He did the man, because it was really her fault they fell. She tempted the man. Do you remember the words in your Bible history? ‘In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.’ What God meant was that for a woman everything having to do with children involves pain. Great joy, but also great pain. It is your lot, Meggie, and you must accept it.”

She didn’t know it, but just so would he have offered comfort and help to any of his parishioners, if with a less intense personal involvement; so very kindly, but never identifying himself with the trouble. And, perhaps not so oddly, thereby the comfort and help he offered was all the greater. As if he had gone beyond such small things, so they were bound to pass. It was not a conscious thing in him, either; no one who came to him for succor ever felt that he looked down on them, or blamed them for their weaknesses. Many priests left their people feeling guilty, worthless or bestial, but he never did. For he made them think that he, too, had his sorrows and his struggles; alien sorrows and incomprehensible struggles, perhaps, yet no less real. He neither knew nor could have been brought to understand that the larger part of his appeal and attraction lay not in his person, but in this aloof, almost godlike, very human something from his soul.

As far as Meggie was concerned, he talked to her the way Frank had talked to her: as if she were his equal. But he was older, wiser and far better educated than Frank, a more satisfactory confidant. And how beautiful his voice was, with its faint Irishness and pear-shaped Britishness. It took all the fear and anguish away. Yet she was young, full of curiosity, eager now to know all there was to know, and not troubled by the perplexing philosophies of those who constantly question not the who of themselves but the why. He was her friend, the cherished idol of her heart, the new sun in her firmament.

“Why shouldn’t you tell me, Father? Why did you say it ought to be Mum?”

“It’s a subject women keep very much to themselves. To mention menstruation or one’s period in front of men or boys just isn’t done, Meggie. It’s something strictly between women.”

“Why?”

He shook his head, and laughed. “To be honest, I really don’t know why. I even wish it weren’t so. But you must take my word for it that it is so. Never mention it to a soul except your mother, and don’t tell her you discussed it with me.”

“All right, Father, I won’t.”

It was damnably difficult, this being a mother; so many practical considerations to remember! “Meggie, you must go home and tell your mother you’ve been passing blood, and ask her to show you how to fix yourself up.”

“Mum does it, too?”

“All healthy women do. But when they’re expecting a baby they stop until after the baby is born. That’s how women tell they’re expecting babies.”

“Why do they stop when they’re expecting babies?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t. Sorry, Meggie.”

“Why does the blood come out of my bottom, Father?”

He glared up at the angel, which looked back at him serenely, not troubled by women’s troubles. Things were getting too sticky for Father Ralph. Amazing that she persisted when she was usually so reticent! Yet realizing he had become the source of her knowledge about everything she couldn’t find in books, he knew her too well to give her any hint of his embarrassment or discomfort. She would withdraw into herself and never ask him anything again.

So he answered patiently, “It doesn’t come out of your bottom, Meggie. There is a hidden passageway in front of your bottom, which has to do with children.”

“Oh! Where they get out, you mean,” she said. “I always wondered how they got out.”

He grinned, and lifted her down from her pedestal. “Now you know. Do you know what makes babies, Meggie?”

“Oh, yes,” she said importantly, glad she knew at least something. “You grow them, Father.”

“What causes them to start growing?”

“You wish them.”

“Who told you that?”

“No one. I worked it out for myself,” she said.

Father Ralph closed his eyes and told himself that he couldn’t possibly be called a coward for leaving matters where they stood. He could pity her, but he couldn’t help her any further. Enough was enough.

4

The head stockman’s house stood on piles some thirty feet above a narrow gulch fringed with tall, straggling gum trees and many weeping willows. After the splendor of Drogheda homestead it was rather bare and utilitarian, but in its appurtenances it was not unlike the house they had left behind in New Zealand. Solid Victorian furniture filled the rooms to overflowing, smothered in fine red dust.

“You‘re lucky here, you have a bathroom,” Father Ralph said as he brought them up the plank steps to the front veranda; it was quite a climb, for the piles upon which the house was poised were fifteen feet high. “In case the creek runs a banker,” Father Ralph explained. “You‘re right on it here and I‘ve heard it can rise sixty feet in a night.”

They did indeed have a bathroom; an old tin bath and a chipped water heater stood in a walled-off alcove at the end of the back veranda. But, as the women found to their disgust, the lavatory was nothing more than a hole in the ground some two hundred yards away from the house, and it stank. After New Zealand, primitive.

“Whoever lived here wasn’t very clean,” Fee said as she ran her finger through the dust on the sideboard.

Father Ralph laughed. “You’ll fight a losing battle trying to get rid of that,” he said. “This is the Outback, and there are three things you’ll never defeat—the heat, the dust and the flies. No matter what you do, they’ll aways be with you.”

Fee looked at the priest. “You’re very good to us, Father.”

“And why not? You’re the only relatives of my very good friend, Mary Carson.”

She shrugged, unimpressed. “I’m not used to being on friendly terms with a priest. In New Zealand they kept themselves very much to themselves.”

“You’re not a Catholic, are you?”

“No, Paddy’s the Catholic. Naturally the children have been reared as Catholics, every last one of them, if that’s what’s worrying you.”

“It never occurred to me. Do you resent it?”

“I really don’t care one way or the other.”

“You didn’t convert?”

“I’m not a hypocrite, Father de Bricassart. I had lost faith in my own church, and I had no wish to espouse a different, equally meaningless creed.”

“I see.” He watched Meggie as she stood on the front veranda, peering up the track toward Drogheda big house. “She’s so pretty, your daughter. I have a fondness for titian hair, you know. Hers would have sent the artist running for his brushes. I’ve never seen exactly that color before. Is she your only daughter?”

“Yes. Boys run in both Paddy’s family and my own; girls are unusual.”

“Poor little thing,” he said obscurely.

After the crates arrived from Sydney and the house took on a more familiar look with its books, china, ornaments and the parlor filled with Fee’s furniture, things began to settle down. Paddy and the boys older than Stu were away most of the time with the two station hands Mary Carson had retained to teach them the many differences between sheep in northwest New South Wales and sheep in New Zealand. Fee, Meggie and Stu discovered the differences between running a house in New Zealand and living in the head stockman’s residence on Drogheda; there was a tacit understanding they would never disturb Mary Carson herself, but her housekeeper and her maids were just as eager to help the women as her station hands were to help the men.

Drogheda was, everyone learned, a world in itself, so cut off from civilization that after a while even Gillanbone became no more than a name with remote memories. Within the bounds of the great Home Paddock lay stables, a smithy, garages, innumerable sheds storing everything from feed to machinery, dog kennels and runs, a labyrinthine maze of stockyards, a mammoth shearing shed with the staggering number of twenty-six stands in it, and yet another jigsaw puzzle of yards behind it. There were fowl runs, pigpens, cow bails and a dairy, quarters for the twenty-six shearers, small shacks for the rouseabouts, two other, smaller, houses like their own for stockmen, a jackaroos’ barracks, a slaughter yard, and woodheaps.

All this sat in just about the middle of a treeless circle whose diameter measured three miles: the Home Paddock. Only at the point where the head stockman’s house lay did the conglomeration of buildings almost touch the forests beyond. However, there were many trees around the sheds, yards and animal runs, to provide welcome and necessary shade; mostly pepper trees, huge, hardy, dense and sleepily lovely. Beyond in the long grass of the Home Paddock, horses and milch cows grazed drowsily.

The deep gully beside the head stockman’s house had a shallow, sluggish stream of muddy water at its bottom. No one credited Father Ralph’s tale of its rising sixty feet overnight; it didn’t seem possible. Water from this creek was pumped up by hand to service the bathroom and kitchen, and it took the women a long time to get used to washing themselves, the dishes and the clothes in greenish-brown water. Six massive corrugated-iron tanks perched on wooden derricklike towers caught rain from the roof and provided them with drinking water, but they learned they must use it very sparingly, that it was never to be used for washing. For there was no guarantee as to when the next rains might come to fill the tanks up.

The sheep and cattle drank artesian water, not tapped from an easily accessible water table, but true artesian water brought from over three thousand feet below the surface. It gushed at boiling point from a pipe at what was called the borehead, and ran through tiny channels fringed with poisonously green grass to every paddock on the property. These channels were the bore drains, and the heavily sulphurated, mineral-laden water they contained was not fit for human consumption.

At first the distances staggered them; Drogheda had two hundred and fifty thousand acres. Its longest boundary stretched for eighty miles. The homestead was forty miles and twenty-seven gates away from Gillanbone, the only settlement of any kind closer than a hundred and six miles. The narrow eastern boundary was formed by the Barwon River, which was what the locals called this northern course of the Darling River, a great muddy thousand-mile stream that finally joined the Murray River and surged out into the southern ocean fifteen hundred miles away in South Australia. Gillan Creek, which ran in the gully beside the head stockman’s house, merged into the Barwon two miles beyond the Home Paddock.

Paddy and the boys loved it. Sometimes they spent days on end in the saddle, miles away from the homestead; camping at night under a sky so vast and filled with stars it seemed they were a part of God.

The grey-brown land swarmed with life. Kangaroos in flocks of thousands streamed leaping through the trees, taking fences in their stride, utterly lovely in their grace and freedom and numbers; emus built their nests in the middle of the grassy plain and stalked like giants about their territorial boundaries, taking fright at anything strange and running fleeter than horses away from their dark-green, football-sized eggs; termites built rusty towers like miniature skyscrapers; huge ants with a savage bite poured in rivers down mounded holes in the ground.

The bird life was so rich and varied there seemed no end to new kinds, and they lived not in ones and twos but in thousands upon thousands: tiny green-and-yellow parakeets Fee used to call lovebirds, but which the locals called budgerigars; scarlet-and-blue smallish parrots called rosellas; big pale-grey parrots with brilliant purplish-pink breasts, underwings and heads, called galahs; and the great pure white birds with cheeky yellow combs called sulphur-crested cockatoos. Exquisite tiny finches whirred and wheeled, so did sparrows and starlings, and the strong brown kingfishers called kookaburras laughed and chuckled gleefully or dived for snakes, their favorite food. They were well-nigh human, all these birds, and completely without fear, sitting in hundreds in the trees peering about with bright intelligent eyes, screaming, talking, laughing, imitating anything that produced a sound.

Fearsome lizards five or six feet long pounded over the ground and leaped lithely for high tree branches, as at home off the earth as on it; they were goannas. And there were many other lizards, smaller but some no less frightening, adorned with horny triceratopean ruffs about their necks, or with swollen, bright-blue tongues. Of snakes the variety was almost endless, and the Clearys learned that the biggest and most dangerous-looking were often the most benign, while a stumpy little creature a foot long might be a death adder; carpet snakes, copper snakes, tree snakes, red-bellied black snakes, brown snakes, lethal tiger snakes.

And insects! Grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, bees, flies of all sizes and sorts, cicadas, gnats, dragonflies, giant moths and so many butterflies! The spiders were dreadful, huge hairy things with a leg span of inches, or deceptively small and deadly black things lurking in the lavatory; some lived in vast wheeling webs slung between trees, some rocked inside dense gossamer cradles hooked among grass blades, others dived into little holes in the ground complete with lids which shut after them.

Predators were there, too: wild pigs frightened of nothing, savage and flesh-eating, black hairy things the size of fully grown cows; dingoes, the wild native dogs which slunk close to the ground and blended into the grass; crows in hundreds carking desolately from the blasted white skeletons of dead trees; hawks and eagles, hovering motionless on the air currents.

From some of these the sheep and cattle had to be protected, especially when they dropped their young. The kangaroos and rabbits ate the precious grass; the pigs and dingoes ate lambs, calves and sick animals; the crows pecked out eyes. The Clearys had to learn to shoot, then carried rifles as they rode, sometimes to put a suffering beast out of its misery, sometimes to fell a boar or a dingo.

This, thought the boys exultantly, was life. Not one of them yearned for New Zealand; when the flies clustered like syrup in the corners of their eyes, up their noses, in their mouths and ears, they learned the Australian trick and hung corks bobbing from the ends of strings all around the brims of their hats. To prevent crawlies from getting up inside the legs of their baggy trousers they tied strips of kangaroo hide called bowyangs below their knees, giggling at the silly-sounding name, but awed by the necessity. New Zealand was tame compared to this; this was life.

Tied to the house and its immediate environs, the women found life much less to their liking, for they had not the leisure or the excuse to ride, nor did they have the stimulation of varying activities. It was just harder to do what women always did: cook, clean, wash, iron, care for babies. They battled the heat, the dust, the flies, the many steps, the muddy water, the nearly perennial absence of men to carry and chop wood, pump water, kill fowls. The heat especially was hard to bear, and it was as yet only early spring; even so, the thermometer out on the shady veranda reached a hundred degrees every day. Inside the kitchen with the range going, it was a hundred and twenty degrees.

Their many layers of clothing were close-fitting and designed for New Zealand, where inside the house it was almost always cool. Mary Carson, exercising gently by walking down to see her sister-in-law, looked at Fee’s high-necked, floor-length calico gown superciliously. She herself was clad in the new fashion, a cream silk dress coming only halfway down her calves, with loose elbow sleeves, no waist and a low décolletage.

“Really, Fiona, you’re hopelessly old-fashioned,” she said, glancing round the parlor with its fresh coat of cream paint, the Persian carpets and the spindly priceless furniture.

“I have no time to be anything else,” Fee said, curtly for her when acting as hostess.

“You’ll have more time now, with the men away so much and fewer meals to get. Raise your hems and stop wearing petticoats and stays, or you’ll die when summer comes. It can get fifteen to twenty degrees hotter than this, you know.” Her eyes dwelled on the portrait of the beautiful blond woman in her Empress Eugénie crinoline. “Who’s that?” she asked, pointing.

“My grandmother.”

“Oh, really? And the furniture, the carpets?”

“Mine, from my grandmother.”

“Oh, really? My dear Fiona, you’ve come down in the world, haven’t you?”

Fee never lost her temper, so she didn’t now, but her thin lips got thinner. “I don’t think so, Mary. I have a good man; you ought to know that.”

“But penniless. What was your maiden name?”

“Armstrong.”

“Oh, really? Not the Roderick Armstrong Armstrongs?”

“He’s my oldest brother. His namesake was my great-grandfather.”

Mary Carson rose, flapping her picture hat at the flies, which were not respecters of person. “Well, you’re better born than the Clearys are, even if I do say so myself. Did you love Paddy enough to give all that up?”

“My reasons for what I do,” said Fee levelly, “are my business, Mary, not yours. I do not discuss my husband, even with his sister.”

The lines on either side of Mary Carson’s nose got deeper, her eyes bulged slightly. “Hoity-toity!”

She did not come again, but Mrs. Smith, her housekeeper, came often, and repeated Mary Carson’s advice about their clothes.

“Look,” she said, “there’s a sewing machine in my quarters which I never use. I’ll have a couple of the rouseabouts carry it down. If I do need to use it, I’ll come down here.” Her eyes strayed to baby Hal, rolling on the floor gleefully. “I like to hear the sound of children, Mrs. Cleary.”

Once every six weeks the mail came by horse-drawn dray from Gillanbone; this was the only contact with the outside world. Drogheda possessed a Ford truck, another specially constructed Ford truck with a water tank on its tray, a model-T Ford car and a Rolls-Royce limousine, but no one ever seemed to use them to go into Gilly save Mary Carson infrequently. Forty miles was as far as the moon.

Bluey Williams had the mail contract for the district and took six weeks to cover his territory. His flat-topped dray with its ten-foot wheels was drawn by a magnificent team of twelve draft horses, and was loaded with all the things the outlying stations ordered. As well as the Royal Mail, he carried groceries, gasoline in forty-four-gallon drums, kerosene in square five-gallon cans, hay, bags of corn, calico bags of sugar and flour, wooden chests of tea, bags of potatoes, farm machinery, mail-order toys and clothes from Anthony Hordern’s in Sydney, plus anything else that had to be brought in from Gilly or Outside. Moving at the clipping rate of twenty miles a day, he was welcomed wherever he stopped, plied for news and weather far away, handed the scribbled scraps of paper carefully wrapped around money for goods he would purchase in Gilly, handed the laboriously written letters which went into the canvas sack marked “Royal GVR Mail.”

West of Gilly there were only two stations on the route, Drogheda closer in, Bugela farther out; beyond Bugela lay the territory that got mail only once every six months. Bluey’s dray swung in a great zigzagging are through all the stations southwest, west and northwest, then returned to Gilly before setting out eastward, a smaller journey because Booroo town took over sixty miles east. Sometimes he brought people sitting beside him on his unsheltered leather seat, visitors or hopefuls looking for work; sometimes he took people away, visitors or discontented stockmen or maids or rouseabouts, very occasionally a governess. The squatters owned cars to transport themselves, but those who worked for the squatters depended upon Bluey for transport as well as goods and letters.

After the bolts of cloth Fee had ordered came on the mail, she sat down at the donated sewing machine and began to make loose dresses in light cotton for herself and Meggie, light trousers and overalls for the men, smocks for Hal, curtains for the windows. There was no doubt it was cooler minus layers of underwear and tightly fitting outerwear.

Life was lonely for Meggie, only Stuart at the house among the boys. Jack and Hughie were off with their father learning to be stockmen—jackaroos, the young apprentices were called. Stuart wasn’t company the way Jack and Hughie used to be. He lived in a world all his own, a quiet little boy who preferred to sit for hours watching the behavior of a throng of ants than climb trees, whereas Meggie adored to climb trees and thought Australian gums were marvelous, of infinite variety and difficulty. Not that there was much time for tree-climbing, or ant-watching for that matter. Meggie and Stuart worked hard. They chopped and carried the wood, dug holes for refuse, tended the vegetable garden and looked after the fowls and pigs. They also learned how to kill snakes and spiders, though they never ceased to fear them.

The rainfall had been mediocrely good for several years; the creek was low but the tanks were about half full. The grass was still fairly good, but apparently nothing to its lush times.

“It will probably get worse,” said Mary Carson grimly.

But they were to know flood before they encountered a full-fledged drought. Halfway through January the country caught the southern edge of the northwest monsoons. Captious in the extreme, the great winds blew to suit themselves. Sometimes only the far northern tips of the continent felt their drenching summer rains, sometimes they traveled far down the Outback and gave the unhappy urbanites of Sydney a wet summer. That January the clouds stormed dark across the sky; torn into sodden shreds by the wind, and it began to rain; not a gentle downpour but a steady, roaring deluge which went on and on.

They had been warned; Bluey Williams had turned up with his dray loaded high and twelve spare horses behind him, for he was moving fast to get through his rounds before the rains made further provisioning of the stations impossible.

“Monsoons are comin’,” he said, rolling a cigarette and indicating piles of extra groceries with his whip. “The Cooper an’ the Barcoo an’ the Diamantina are runnin’ real bankers an’ the Overflow is overflowin’. The whole Queenslan’ Outback’s two foot under water an’ them poor buggers is tryin’ to find a rise in the groun’ to put the sheep on.”

Suddenly there was a controlled panic; Paddy and the boys worked like madmen, moving the sheep out of the low-lying paddocks and as far away from the creek and the Barwon as they could. Father Ralph turned up, saddled his horse and set off with Frank and the best team of dogs for two uncleared paddocks alongside the Barwon, while Paddy and the two stockmen each took a boy in other directions.

Father Ralph was an excellent stockman himself. He rode a thoroughbred chestnut mare Mary Carson had given him, clad in faultlessly tailored buff jodhpurs, shiny tan knee boots, and a spotless white shirt with its sleeves rolled up his sinewy arms and its neck open to show his smooth brown chest. In baggy old grey twill trousers tied with bowyangs and a grey flannel undershirt, Frank felt like a poor relation. Which was what he was, he thought wryly, following the straight figure on the dainty mare through a stand of box and pine beyond the creek. He himself rode a hard-mouthed piebald stock horse, a mean-tempered beast with a will of its own and a ferocious hatred of other horses. The dogs were yelping and cavorting in excitement, fighting and snarling among themselves until parted with a flick from Father Ralph’s viciously wielded stock whip. It seemed there was nothing the man couldn’t do; he was familiar with the coded whistles setting the dogs to work, and plied his whip much better than Frank, still learning this exotic Australian art.

The big Queensland blue brute that led the dog pack took a slavish fancy to the priest and followed him without question, meaning Frank was very definitely the second-string man. Half of Frank didn’t mind; he alone among Paddy’s sons had not taken to life on Drogheda. He had wanted nothing more than to quit New Zealand, but not to come to this. He hated the ceaseless patrolling of the paddocks, the hard ground to sleep on most nights, the savage dogs which could not be treated as pets and were shot if they failed to do their work.

But the ride into the gathering clouds had an element of adventure to it; even the bending, cracking trees seemed to dance with an outlandish joy. Father Ralph worked like a man in the grip of some obsession, sooling the dogs after unsuspecting bands of sheep, sending the silly woolly things leaping and bleating in fright until the low shapes streaking through the grass got them packed tight and running. Only having the dogs enabled a small handful of men to operate a property the size of Drogheda; bred to work sheep or cattle, they were amazingly intelligent and needed very little direction.

By nightfall Father Ralph and the dogs, with Frank trying to do his inadequate best behind them, had cleared all the sheep out of one paddock, normally several days’ work. He unsaddled his mare near a clump of trees by the gate to the second paddock, talking optimistically of being able to get the stock out of it also before the rain started. The dogs were sprawled flat out in the grass, tongues lolling, the big Queensland blue fawning and cringing at Father Ralph’s feet. Frank dug a repulsive collection of kangaroo meat out of his saddlebag and flung it to the dogs, which fell on it snapping and biting at each other jealously.

“Bloody awful brutes,” he said. “They don’t behave like dogs; they’re just jackals.”

“I think these are probably a lot closer to what God intended dogs should be,” said Father Ralph mildly. “Alert, intelligent, aggressive and almost untamed. For myself, I prefer them to the house-pet species.” He smiled. “The cats, too. Haven’t you noticed them around the sheds? As wild and vicious as panthers; won’t let a human being near them. But they hunt magnificently, and call no man master or provider.”

He unearthed a cold piece of mutton and a packet of bread and butter from his saddlebag, carved a hunk from the mutton and handed the rest to Frank. Putting the bread and butter on a log between them, he sank his white teeth into the meat with evident enjoyment. Thirst was slaked from a canvas water bag, then cigarettes rolled.

A lone wilga tree stood nearby; Father Ralph indicated it with his cigarette.

“That’s the spot to sleep,” he said, unstrapping his blanket and picking up his saddle.

Frank followed him to the tree, commonly held the most beautiful in this part of Australia. Its leaves were dense and a pale lime green, its shape almost perfectly rounded. The foliage grew so close to the ground that sheep could reach it easily, the result being that every wilga bottom was mown as straight as a topiary hedge. If the rain began they would have more shelter under it than any other tree, for Australian trees were generally thinner of foliage than the trees of wetter lands.

“You’re not happy, Frank, are you?” Father Ralph asked, lying down with a sigh and rolling another smoke.

From his position a couple of feet away Frank turned to look at him suspiciously. “What’s happy?”

“At the moment, your father and brothers. But not you, not your mother, and not your sister. Don’t you like Australia?”

“Not this bit of it. I want to go to Sydney. I might have a chance there to make something of myself.”

“Sydney, eh? It’s a den of iniquity.” Father Ralph was smiling.

“I don’t care! Out here I’m stuck the same way I was in New Zealand; I can’t get away from him.”

“Him?”

But Frank had not meant to say it, and would say no more. He lay looking up at the leaves.

“How old are you, Frank?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Oh, yes! Have you ever been away from your people?”

“No.”

“Have you even been to a dance, had a girlfriend?”

“No.” Frank refused to give him his title.

“Then he’ll not hold you much longer.”

“He’ll hold me until I die.”

Father Ralph yawned, and composed himself for sleep. “Good night,” he said.

In the morning the clouds were lower, but the rain held off all day and they got the second paddock cleared. A slight ridge ran clear across Drogheda from northeast to southwest; it was in these paddocks the stock were concentrated, where they had higher ground to seek if the water rose above the escarpments of the creek and the Barwon.

The rain began almost on nightfall, as Frank and the priest hurried at a fast trot toward the creek ford below the head stockman’s house.

“No use worrying about blowing them now!” Father Ralph shouted. “Dig your heels in, lad, or you’ll drown in the mud!”

They were soaked within seconds, and so was the hard-baked ground. The fine, nonporous soil became a sea of mud, miring the horses to their hocks and setting them floundering. While the grass persisted they managed to press on, but near the creek where the earth had been trodden to bareness they had to dismount. Once relieved of their burdens, the horses had no trouble, but Frank found it impossible to keep his balance. It was worse than a skating rink. On hands and knees they crawled to the top of the creek bank, and slid down it like projectiles. The stone roadway, which was normally covered by a foot of lazy water, was under four feet of racing foam; Frank heard the priest laugh. Urged on by shouts and slaps from sodden hats, the horses managed to scramble up the far bank without mishap, but Frank and Father Ralph could not. Every time they tried, they slid back again. The priest had just suggested they climb a willow when Paddy, alerted by the appearance of riderless horses, came with a rope and hauled them out.

Smiling and shaking his head, Father Ralph refused Paddy’s offer of hospitality.

“I’m expected at the big house,” he said.

Mary Carson heard him calling before any of her staff did, for he had chosen to walk around to the front of the house, thinking it would be easier to reach his room.

“You’re not coming inside like that,” she said, standing on the veranda.

“Then be a dear, get me several towels and my case.”

Unembarrassed, she watched him peel off his shirt, boots and breeches, leaning against the half-open window into her drawing room as he toweled the worst of the mud off.

“You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen, Ralph de Bricassart,” she said. “Why is it so many priests are beautiful? The Irishness? They’re rather a handsome people, the Irish. Or is it that beautiful men find the priesthood a refuge from the consequences of their looks? I’ll bet the girls in Gilly just eat their hearts out over you.”

“I learned long ago not to take any notice of love-sick girls.” He laughed. “Any priest under fifty is a target for some of them, and a priest under thirty-five is usually a target for all of them. But it’s only the Protestant girls who openly try to seduce me.”

“You never answer my questions outright, do you?” Straightening, she laid her palm on his chest and held it there. “You’re a sybarite, Ralph, you lie in the sun. Are you as brown all over?”

Smiling, he leaned his head forward, then laughed into her hair, his hands unbuttoning the cotton drawers; as they fell to the ground he kicked them away, standing like a Praxiteles statue while she toured all the way around him, taking her time and looking.

The last two days had exhilarated him, so did the sudden awareness that she was perhaps more vulnerable than he had imagined; but he knew her, and he felt quite safe in asking, “Do you want me to make love to you, Mary?”

She eyed his flaccid penis, snorting with laughter. “I wouldn’t dream of putting you to so much trouble! Do you need women, Ralph?”

His head reared back scornfully. “No!”

“Men?”

“They’re worse than women. No, I don’t need them.”

“How about yourself?”

“Least of all.”

“Interesting.” Pushing the window all the way up, she stepped through into the drawing room. “Ralph, Cardinal de Bricassart!” she mocked. But away from those discerning eyes of his she sagged back into her wing chair and clenched her fists, the gesture which rails against the inconsistencies of fate.

Naked, Father Ralph stepped off the veranda to stand on the barbered lawn with his arms raised above his head, eyes closed; he let the rain pour over him in warm, probing, spearing runnels, an exquisite sensation on bare skin. It was very dark. But he was still flaccid.

The creek broke its banks and the water crept higher up the piles of Paddy’s house, farther out across the Home Paddock toward the homestead itself.

“It will go down tomorrow,” said Mary Carson when Paddy went to report, worried.

As usual, she was right; over the next week the water ebbed and finally returned to its normal channels. The sun came out, the temperature zoomed to a hundred and fifteen in the shade, and the grass seemed to take wing for the sky, thigh-high and clean, bleached brilliant as gilt, hurting the eyes. Washed and dusted, the trees glittered, and the hordes of parrots came back from wherever they had gone while the rain fell to flash their rainbow bodies amid the timber, more loquacious than ever.

Father Ralph had returned to succor his neglected parishioners, serene in the knowledge his knuckles would not be rapped; under the pristine white shirt next to his heart resided a check for one thousand pounds. The bishop would be ecstatic.

The sheep were moved back to their normal pasture and the Clearys were forced to learn the Outback habit of siesta. They rose at five, got everything done before midday, then collapsed in twitching, sweating heaps until five in the afternoon. This applied both to the women at the house and the men in the paddocks. Chores which could not be done early were done after five, and the evening meal eaten after the sun had gone down at a table outside on the veranda. All the beds had been moved outside as well for the heat persisted through the night. It seemed as if the mercury had not gone below a century in weeks, day or night. Beef was a forgotten memory, only a sheep small enough to last without tainting until it was all eaten. Their palates longed for a change from the eternal round of baked mutton chops, mutton stew, shepherd’s pie made of minced mutton, curried mutton, roast leg of mutton, boiled pickled mutton, mutton casserole.

But at the beginning of February life changed abruptly for Meggie and Stuart. They were sent to the convent in Gillanbone to board, for there was no school closer. Hal, said Paddy, could learn by correspondence from Blackfriars School in Sydney when he was old enough, but in the meantime, since Meggie and Stuart were used to teachers, Mary Carson had generously offered to pay for their board and tuition at the Holy Cross convent. Besides, Fee was too busy with Hal to supervise correspondence lessons as well. It had been tacitly understood from the beginning that Jack and Hughie would go no further with their educations; Drogheda needed them on the land, and the land was what they wanted.

Meggie and Stuart found it a strange, peaceful existence at Holy Cross after their life on Drogheda, but especially after the Sacred Heart in Wahine. Father Ralph had subtly indicated to the nuns that this pair of children were his protégés, their aunt the richest woman in New South Wales. So Meggie’s shyness was transformed from a vice into a virtue, and Stuart’s odd isolation, his habit of staring for hours into illimitable distances, earned him the epithet “saintly.”

It was very peaceful indeed, for there were very few boarders; people of the district wealthy enough to send their offspring to boarding school invariably preferred Sydney. The convent smelled of polish and flowers, its dark high corridors awash with quietness and a tangible holiness. Voices were muted, life went on behind a black thin veil. No one caned them, no one shouted at them, and there was always Father Ralph.

He came to see them often, and had them to stay at the presbytery so regularly he decided to paint the bedroom Meggie used a delicate apple green, buy new curtains for the windows and a new quilt for the bed. Stuart continued to sleep in a room which had been cream and brown through two redecorations; it simply never occurred to Father Ralph to wonder if Stuart was happy. He was the afterthought who to avoid offense must also be invited.

Just why he was so fond of Meggie Father Ralph didn’t know, nor for that matter did he spend much time wondering about it. It had begun with pity that day in the dusty station yard when he had noticed her lagging behind; set apart from the rest of her family by virtue of her sex, he had shrewdly guessed. As to why Frank also moved on an outer perimeter, this did not intrigue him at all, nor did he feel moved to pity Frank. There was something in Frank which killed tender emotions: a dark heart, a spirit lacking inner light. But Meggie? She had moved him unbearably, and he didn’t really know why. There was the color of her hair, which pleased him; the color and form of her eyes, like her mother’s and therefore beautiful, but so much sweeter, more expressive; and her character, which he saw as the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong. No rebel, Meggie; on the contrary. All her life she would obey, move within the boundaries of her female fate.

Yet none of it added up to the full total. Perhaps, had he looked more deeply into himself, he might have seen that what he felt for her was the curious result of time, and place, and person. No one thought of her as important, which meant there was a space in her life into which he could fit himself and be sure of her love; she was a child, and therefore no danger to his way of life or his priestly reputation; she was beautiful, and he enjoyed beauty; and, least acknowledged of all, she filled an empty space in his life which his God could not, for she had warmth and a human solidity. Because he could not embarrass her family by giving her gifts, he gave her as much of his company as he could, and spent time and thought on redecorating her room at the presbytery; not so much to see her pleasure as to create a fitting setting for his jewel. No pinchbeck for Meggie.

At the beginning of May the shearers arrived on Drogheda. Mary Carson was extraordinarily aware of how everything on Drogheda was done, from deploying the sheep to cracking a stock whip; she summoned Paddy to the big house some days before the shearers came, and without moving from her wing chair she told him precisely what to do down to the last little detail. Used to New Zealand shearing, Paddy had been staggered by the size of the shed, its twenty-six stands; now, after the interview with his sister, facts and figures warred inside his head. Not only would Drogheda sheep be shorn on Drogheda, but Bugela and Dibban-Dibban and Beel-Beel sheep as well. It meant a grueling amount of work for every soul on the place, male and female. Communal shearing was the custom and the stations sharing Drogheda’s shearing facilities would naturally pitch in to help, but the brunt of the incidental work inevitably fell on the shoulders of those on Drogheda.

The shearers would bring their own cook with them and buy their food from the station store, but those vast amounts of food had to be found; the ramshackle barracks with kitchen and primitive bathroom attached had to be scoured, cleaned and equipped with mattresses and blankets. Not all stations were as generous as Drogheda was to its shearers, but Drogheda prided itself on its hospitality, and its reputation as a “bloody good shed.”. For this was the one activity in which Mary Carson participated, so she didn’t stint her purse. Not only was it one of the biggest sheds in New South Wales, but it required the very best men to be had, men of the Jackie Howe caliber; over three hundred thousand sheep would be shorn there before the shearers loaded their swags into the contractor’s old Ford truck and disappeared down the track to their next shed.

Frank had not been home for two weeks. With old Beerbarrel Pete the stockman, a team of dogs, two stock horses and a light sulky attached to an unwilling nag to hold their modest needs, they had set out for the far western paddocks to bring the sheep in, working them closer and closer, culling and sorting. It was slow, tedious work, not to be compared with that wild muster before the floods. Each paddock had its own stock-yards, in which some of the grading and marking would be done and the mobs held until it was their turn to come in. The shearing shed yards accommodated only ten thousand sheep at a time, so life wouldn’t be easy while the shearers were there; it would be a constant flurry of exchanging mobs, unshorn for shorn.

When Frank stepped into his mother’s kitchen she was standing beside the sink at a never-ending job, peeling potatoes.

“Mum, I’m home!” he said, joy in his voice.

As she swung around her belly showed, and his two weeks away lent his eyes added perception.

“Oh, God!” he said.

Her eyes lost their pleasure in seeing him, her face flooded with scarlet shame; she spread her hands over her ballooning apron as if they could hide what her clothes could not.

Frank was shaking. “The dirty old goat!”

“Frank, I can’t let you say things like that. You’re a man now, you ought to understand. This is no different from the way you came into the world yourself, and it deserves the same respect. It isn’t dirty. When you insult Daddy, you insult me.”

“He had no right! He should have left you alone!” Frank hissed, wiping a fleck of foam from the corner of his trembling mouth.

“It isn’t dirty,” she repeated wearily, and looked at him from her clear tired eyes as if she had suddenly decided to put shame behind her forever. “It’s not dirty, Frank, and nor is the act which created it.”

This time his face reddened. He could not continue to meet her gaze, so he turned and went through into the room he shard with Bob, Jack and Hughie. Its bare walls and little single beds mocked him, mocked him, the sterile and featureless look to it, the lack of a presence to warm it, a purpose to hallow it. And her face, her beautiful tired face with its prim halo of golden hair, all alight because of what she and that hairy old goat had done in the terrible heat of summer.

He could not get away from it, he could not get away from her, from the thoughs at the back of his mind, from the hungers natural to his age and manhood. Mostly he managed to push it all below consciousness, but when she flaunted tangible evidence of her lust before his eyes, threw her mysterious activity with that lecherous old beast in his very teeth…. How could he think of it, how could he consent to it, how could he bear it? He wanted to be able to think of her as totally holy, pure and untainted as the Blessed Mother, a being who was above such things though all her sisters throughout the world be guilty of it. To see her proving his concept of her wrong was the road to madness. It had become necessary to his sanity to imagine that she lay with that ugly old man in perfect chastity, to have a place to sleep, but that in the night they never turned toward each other, or touched. Oh, God!

A scraping clang made him look down, to find he had twisted the brass rail of the bed’s foot into an S.

“Why aren’t you Daddy?” he asked it.

“Frank,” said his mother from the doorway.

He looked up, black eyes glittering and wet like rained-upon coal. “I’ll end up killing him,” he said.

“If you do that, you’ll kill me,” said Fee, coming to sit upon the bed.

“No, I’d free you!” he countered wildly, hopefully.

“Frank, I can never be free, and I don’t want to be free. I wish I knew where your blindness comes from, but I don’t. It isn’t mine, nor is it your father’s. I know you’re not happy, but must you take it out on me, and on Daddy? Why do you insist upon making everything so hard? Why?” She looked down at her hands, looked up at him. “I don’t want to say this, but I think I have to. It’s time you found yourself a girl, Frank, got married and had a family of your own. There’s room on Drogheda. I’ve never been worried about the other boys in that respect; they don’t seem to have your nature at all. But you need a wife, Frank. If you had one, you wouldn’t have time to think about me.”

He had turned his back upon her, and wouldn’t turn around. For perhaps five minutes she sat on the bed hoping he would say something, then she sighed, got up and left.

Two

1921–1928
Ralph

3

The road to Drogheda brought back no memories of his youth, thought Father Ralph de Bricassart, eyes half shut against the glare as his new Daimler bounced along in the rutted wheel tracks that marched through the long silver grass. No lovely misty green Ireland, this. And Drogheda? No battlefield, no high seat of power. Or was that strictly true? Better disciplined these days but acute as ever, his sense of humor conjured in his mind an image of a Cromwellian Mary Carson dealing out her particular brand of imperial malevolence. Not such a highflown comparison, either; the lady surely wielded as much power and controlled as many individuals as any puissant war lord of elder days.

The last gate loomed up through a stand of box and stringybark; the car came to a throbbing halt. Clapping a disreputable grey broad-brimmed hat on his head to ward off the sun, Father Ralph got out, plodded to the steel bolt on the wooden strut, pulled it back and flung the gate open with weary impatience. There were twenty-seven gates between the presbytery in Gillanbone and Drogheda homestead, each one meaning he had to stop, get out of the car, open the gate, get into the car and drive it through, stop, get out, go back to close the gate, then get in the car again and proceed to the next one. Many and many a time he longed to dispense with at least half the ritual, scoot on down the track leaving the gates open like a series of astonished mouths behind him; but even the awesome aura of his calling would not prevent the owners of the gates from tarring and feathering him for it. He wished horses were as fast and efficient as cars, because one could open and close gates from the back of a horse without dismounting.

“Nothing is given without a disadvantage in it,” he said, patting the dashboard of the new Daimler and starting off down the last mile of the grassy, treeless Home Paddock, the gate firmly bolted behind him.

Even to an Irishman used to castles and mansions, this Australian homestead was imposing. Drogheda was the oldest and the biggest property in the district, and had been endowed by its late doting owner with a fitting residence. Built of butter-yellow sandstone blocks hand-hewn in quarries five hundred miles eastward, the house had two stories and was constructed on austerely Georgian lines, with large, many-paned windows and a wide, iron-pillared veranda running all the way around its bottom story. Gracing the sides of every window were black wooden shutters, not merely ornamental but useful; in the heat of summer they were pulled closed to keep the interior cool.

Though it was autumn now and the spindling vine was green, in spring the wistaria which had been planted the day the house was finished fifty years before was a solid mass of lilac plumes, rioting all over the outer walls and the veranda roof. Several acres of meticulously scythed lawn surrounded the house, strewn with formal gardens even now full of color from roses, wallflowers, dahlias and marigolds. A stand of magnificent ghost gums with pallid white trunks and drifting thin leaves hanging seventy feet above the ground shaded the house from the pitiless sun, their branches wreathed in brilliant magenta where bougainvillaea vines grew intertwined with them. Even those indispensable Outback monstrosities the water tanks were thickly clothed in hardy native vines, roses and wistaria, and thus managed to look more decorative than functional. Thanks to the late Michael Carson’s passion for Drogheda homestead, he had been lavish in the matter of water tanks; rumor had it Drogheda could afford to keep its lawns green and its flower beds blooming though no rain fell in ten years.

As one approached down the Home Paddock the house and its ghost gums took the eye first, but then one was aware of many other yellow sandstone houses of one story behind it and to each side, interlocking with the main structure by means of roofed ramps smothered in creepers. A wide gravel driveway succeeded the wheel ruts of the track, curving to a circular parking area at one side of the big house, but also continuing beyond it and out of sight down to where the real business of Drogheda lay: the stockyards, the shearing shed, the barns. Privately Father Ralph preferred the giant pepper trees which shaded all these outbuildings and their attendant activities to the ghost gums of the main house. Pepper trees were dense with pale-green fronds and alive with the sound of bees, just the right lazy sort of foliage for an Outback station.

As Father Ralph parked his car and walked across the lawn, the maid waited on the front veranda, her freckled face wreathed in smiles.

“Good morning, Minnie,” he said.

“Oh, Father, happy it is to see you this fine dear mornin’,” she said in her strong brogue, one hand holding the door wide and the other outstretched to receive his battered, unclerical hat.

Inside the dim hall, with its marble tiles and great brass-railed staircase, he paused until Minnie gave him a nod before entering the drawing room.

Mary Carson was sitting in her wing chair by an open window which extended fifteen feet from floor to ceiling, apparently indifferent to the cold air flooding in. Her shock of red hair was almost as bright as it had been in her youth; though the coarse freckled skin had picked up additional splotches from age, for a woman of sixty-five she had few wrinkles, rather a fine network of tiny diamond-shaped cushions like a quilted bed-spread. The only clues to her intractable nature lay in the two deep fissures which ran one on either side of her Roman nose, to end pulling down the corners of her mouth, and in the stony look of the pale-blue eyes.

Father Ralph crossed the Aubusson carpet silently and kissed her hands; the gesture sat well on a man as tall and graceful as he was, especially since he wore a plain black soutane which gave him something of a courtly air. Her expressionless eyes suddenly coy and sparkling, Mary Carson almost simpered.

“Will you have tea, Father?” she asked.

“It depends on whether you wish to hear Mass,” he said, sitting down in the chair facing hers and crossing his legs, the soutane riding up sufficiently to show that under it he wore breeches and knee-high boots, a concession to the locale of his parish. “I’ve brought you Communion, but if you’d like to hear Mass I can be ready to say it in a very few minutes. I don’t mind continuing my fast a little longer.”

“You’re too good to me, Father,” she said smugly, knowing perfectly well that he, along with everybody else, did homage not to her but to her money. “Please have tea,” she went on. “I’m quite happy with Communion.”

He kept his resentment from showing in his face; this parish had been excellent for his self-control. If once he was offered the chance to rise out of the obscurity his temper had landed him in, he would not again make the same mistake. And if he played his cards well, this old woman might be the answer to his prayers.

“I must confess, Father, that this past year has been very pleasant,” she said. “You’re a far more satisfactory shepherd than old Father Kelly was, God rot his soul.” Her voice on the last phrase was suddenly harsh, vindictive.

His eyes lifted to her face, twinkling. “My dear Mrs. Carson! That’s not a very Catholic sentiment.”

“But the truth. He was a drunken old sot, and I’m quite sure God will rot his soul as much as the drink rotted his body.” She leaned forward. “I know you fairly well by this time; I think I’m entitled to ask you a few questions, don’t you? After all, you feel free to use Drogheda as your private playground—off learning how to be a stockman, polishing your riding, escaping from the vicissitudes of life in Gilly. All at my invitation, of course, but I do think I’m entitled to some answers, don’t you?”

He didn’t like to be reminded that he ought to feel grateful, but he had been waiting for the day when she would think she owned him enough to begin demanding things of him. “Indeed you are, Mrs. Carson. I can’t thank you enough for permitting me the run of Drogheda, and for all your gifts—my horses, my car.”

“How old are you?” she asked without further preamble.

“Twenty-eight,” he replied.

“Younger than I thought. Even so, they don’t send priests like you to places like Gilly. What did you do, to make them send someone like you out here into the back of beyond?”

“I insulted the bishop,” he said calmly, smiling.

“You must have! But I can’t think a priest of your peculiar talents can be happy in a place like Gillanbone.”

“It is God’s will.”

“Stuff and nonsense! You’re here because of human failings—your own and the bishop’s. Only the Pope is infallible. You’re utterly out of your natural element in Gilly, we all know that, not that we’re not grateful to have someone like you for a change, instead of the ordained remittance men they send us usually. But your natural element lies in some corridor of ecclesiastical power, not here among horses and sheep. You’d look magnificent in cardinal’s red.”

“No chance of that, I’m afraid. I fancy Gillanbone is not exactly the epicenter of the Archbishop Papal Legate’s map. And it could be worse. I have you, and I have Drogheda.”

She accepted the deliberately blatant flattery in the spirit in which it was intended, enjoying his beauty, his attentiveness, his barbed and subtle mind; truly he would make a magnificent cardinal. In all her life she could not remember seeing a better-looking man, nor one who used his beauty in quite the same way. He had to be aware of how he looked: the height and the perfect proportions of his body, the fine aristocratic features, the way every physical element had been put together with a degree of care about the appearance of the finished product God lavished on few of His creations. From the loose black curls of his head and the startling blue of his eyes to the small, slender hands and feet, he was perfect. Yes, he had to be conscious of what he was. And yet there was an aloofness about him, a way he had of making her feel he had never been enslaved by his beauty, nor ever would be. He would use it to get what he wanted without compunction if it would help, but not as though he was enamored of it; rather as if he deemed people beneath contempt for being influenced by it. And she would have given much to know what in his past life had made him so.

Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?

“Why do you put up with Gillanbone?” she asked. “Why not leave the priesthood rather than put up with it? You could be rich and powerful in any one of a number of fields with your talents, and you can’t tell me the thought of power at least doesn’t appeal to you.”

His left eyebrow flew up. “My dear Mrs. Carson, you’re a Catholic. You know my vows are sacred. Until my death I remain a priest. I cannot deny it.”

She snorted with laughter. “Oh, come now! Do you really believe that if you renounced your vows they’d come after you with everything from bolts of lightning to bloodhounds and shotguns?”

“Of course not. Nor do I believe you’re stupid enough to think fear of retribution is what keeps me within the priestly fold.”

“Oho! Waspish, Father de Bricassart! Then what does keep you tied? What compels you to suffer the dust, the heat and the Gilly flies? For all you know, it might be a life sentence.”

A shadow momentarily dimmed the blue eyes, but he smiled, pitying her. “You’re a great comfort, aren’t you?” His lips parted, he looked toward the ceiling and sighed. “I was brought up from my cradle to be a priest, but it’s far more than that. How can I explain it to a woman? I am a vessel, Mrs. Carson, and at times I’m filled with God. If I were a better priest, there would be no periods of emptiness at all. And that filling, that oneness with God, isn’t a function of place. Whether I’m in Gillanbone or a bishop’s palace, it occurs. But to define it is difficult, because even to priests it’s a great mystery. A divine possession, which other men can never know. That’s it, perhaps. Abandon it? I couldn’t.”

“So it’s a power, is it? Why should it be given to priests, then? What makes you think the mere smearing of chrism during an exhaustingly long ceremony is able to endow any man with it?”

He shook his head. “Look, it’s years of life, even before getting to the point of ordination. The careful development of a state of mind which opens the vessel to God. It’s earned! Every day it’s earned. Which is the purpose of the vows, don’t you see? That no earthly things come between the priest and his state of mind—not love of a woman, nor love of money, nor unwillingness to obey the dictates of other men. Poverty is nothing new to me; I don’t come from a rich family. Chastity I accept without finding it difficult to maintain. And obedience? For me, it’s the hardest of the three. But I obey, because if I hold myself more important than my function as a receptacle for God, I’m lost. I obey. And if necessary, I’m willing to endure Gillanbone as a life sentence.”

“Then you’re a fool,” she said. “I, too, think that there are more important things than lovers, but being a receptacle for God isn’t one of them. Odd. I never realized you believed in God so ardently. I thought you were perhaps a man who doubted.”

“I do doubt. What thinking man doesn’t? That’s why at times I’m empty.” He looked beyond her, at something she couldn’t see. “Do you know, I think I’d give up every ambition, every desire in me, for the chance to be a perfect priest?”

“Perfection in anything,” she said, “is unbearably dull. Myself, I prefer a touch of imperfection.”

He laughed, looking at her in admiration tinged with envy. She was a remarkable woman.

Her widowhood was thirty-three years old and her only child, a son, had died in infancy. Because of her peculiar status in the Gillanbone community she had not availed herself of any of the overtures made to her by the more ambitious males of her acquaintance; as Michael Carson’s widow she was indisputably a queen, but as someone’s wife she passed control of all she had to that someone. Not Mary Carson’s idea of living, to play second fiddle. So she had abjured the flesh, preferring to wield power; it was inconceivable that she should take a lover, for when it came to gossip Gillanbone was as receptive as a wire to an electrical current. To prove herself human and weak was not a part of her obsession.

But now she was old enough to be officially beyond the drives of the body. If the new young priest was assiduous in his duties to her and she rewarded him with little gifts like a car, it was not at all incongruous. A staunch pillar of the Church all her life, she had supported her parish and its spiritual leader in fitting fashion even when Father Kelly had hiccuped his way through the Mass. She was not alone in feeling charitably inclined toward Father Kelly’s successor; Father Ralph de Bricassart was deservedly popular with every member of his flock, rich or poor. If his more remote parishioners could not get into Gilly to see him, he went to them, and until Mary Carson had given him his car he had gone on horseback. His patience and kindness had brought him liking from all and sincere love from some; Martin King of Bugela had expensively refurnished the presbytery, Dominic O’Rourke of Dibban-Dibban paid the salary of a good housekeeper.

So from the pedestal of her age and her position Mary Carson felt quite safe in enjoying Father Ralph; she liked matching her wits against a brain as intelligent as her own, she liked outguessing him because she was never sure she actually did outguess him.

“Getting back to what you were saying about Gilly not being the epicenter of the Archbishop Papal Legate’s map,” she said, settling deeply into her chair, “what do you think would shake the reverend gentleman sufficiently to make Gilly the pivot of his world?”

The priest smiled ruefully. “Impossible to say. A coup of some sort? The sudden saving of a thousand souls, a sudden capacity to heal the lame and the blind…. But the age of miracles is past.”

“Oh, come now, I doubt that! It’s just that He’s altered His technique. These days He uses money.”

“What a cynic you are! Maybe that’s why I like you so much, Mrs. Carson.”

“My name is Mary. Please call me Mary.”

Minnie came in wheeling the tea trolley as Father de Bricassart said, “Thank you, Mary.”

Over fresh bannocks and anchovies on toast, Mary Carson sighed. “Dear Father, I want you to pray especially hard for me this morning.”

“Call me Ralph,” he said, then went on mischievously, “I doubt it’s possible for me to pray any harder for you than I normally do, but I’ll try.”

“Oh, you’re a charmer! Or was that remark innuendo? I don’t usually care for obviousness, but with you I’m never sure if the obviousness isn’t actually a cloak for something deeper. Like a carrot before a donkey. Just what do you really think of me, Father de Bricassart? I’ll never know, because you’ll never be tactless enough to tell me, will you? Fascinating, fascinating…But you must pray for me. I’m old, and I’ve sinned much.”

“Age creeps on us all, and I, too, have sinned.”

A dry chuckle escaped her. “I’d give a lot to know how you’ve sinned! Indeed, indeed I would.” She was silent for a moment, then changed the subject. “At this minute I’m minus a head stockman.”

“Again?”

“Five in the past year. It’s getting hard to find a decent man.”

“Well, rumor hath it you’re not exactly a generous or a considerate employer.”

“Oh, impudent!” she gasped, laughing. “Who bought you a brand-new Daimler so you wouldn’t have to ride?”

“Ah, but look how hard I pray for you!”

“If Michael had only had half your wit and character, I might have loved him,” she said abruptly. Her face changed, became spiteful. “Do you think I’m without a relative in the world and must leave my money and my land to Mother Church, is that it?”

“I have no idea,” he said tranquilly, pouring himself more tea.

“As a matter of fact, I have a brother with a large and thriving family of sons.”

“How nice for you,” he said demurely.

“When I married I was quite without worldly goods. I knew I’d never marry well in Ireland, where a woman has to have breeding and background to catch a rich husband. So I worked my fingers to the bone to save my passage money to a land where the rich men aren’t so fussy. All I had when I got here were a face and a figure and a better brain than women are supposed to have, and they were adequate to catch Michael Carson, who was a rich fool. He doted on me until the day he died.”

“And your brother?” he prompted, thinking she was going off at a tangent.

“My brother is eleven years younger than I am, which would make him fifty-four now. We’re the only two still alive. I hardly know him; he was a small child when I left Galway. At present he lives in New Zealand, though if he emigrated to make his fortune he hasn’t succeeded.

“But last night when the station hand brought me the news that Arthur Teviot had packed his traps and gone, I suddenly thought of Padraic. Here I am, not getting any younger, with no family around me. And it occurred to me that Paddy is an experienced man of the land, without the means to own land. Why not, I thought, write to him and ask him to bring himself and his sons here? When I die he’ll inherit Drogheda and Michar Limited, as he’s my only living relative closer than some unknown cousins back in Ireland.”

She smiled. “It seems silly to wait, doesn’t it? He might as well come now as later, get used to running sheep on the black soil plains, which I’m sure is quite different from sheep in New Zealand. Then when I’m gone he can step into my shoes without feeling the pinch.” Head lowered, she watched Father Ralph closely.

“I wonder you didn’t think of it earlier,” he said.

“Oh, I did. But until recently I thought the last thing I wanted was a lot of vultures waiting anxiously for me to breathe my last. Only lately the day of my demise seems a lot closer than is used to, and I feel…oh, I don’t know. As if it might be nice to be surrounded by people of my own flesh and blood.”

“What’s the matter, do you think you’re ill?” he asked quickly, a real concern in his eyes.

She shrugged. “I’m perfectly all right. Yet there’s something ominous about turning sixty-five. Suddenly old age is not a phenomenon which will occur; it has occurred.”

“I see what you mean, and you’re right. It will be very pleasant for you, hearing young voices in the house.”

“Oh, they won’t live here,” she said. “They can live in the head stockman’s house down by the creek, well away from me. I’m not fond of children or their voices.”

“Isn’t that a rather shabby way to treat your only brother, Mary? Even if your ages are so disparate?”

“He’ll inherit—let him earn it,” she said crudely.

Fiona Cleary was delivered of another boy six days before Meggie’s ninth birthday, counting herself lucky nothing but a couple of miscarriages had happened in the interim. At nine Meggie was old enough to be a real help. Fee herself was forty years old, too old to bear children without a great deal of strength-sapping pain. The child, named Harold, was a delicate baby; for the first time anyone could ever remember, the doctor came regularly to the house.

And as troubles do, the Cleary troubles multiplied. The aftermath of the war was not a boom, but a rural depression. Work became increasingly harder to get.

Old Angus MacWhirter delivered a telegram to the house one day just as they were finishing tea, and Paddy tore it open with trembling hands; telegrams never held good news. The boys gathered round, all save Frank, who took his cup of tea and left the table. Fee’s eyes followed him, then turned back as Paddy groaned.

“What is it?” she asked.

Paddy was staring at the piece of paper as if it held news of a death. “Archibald doesn’t want us.”

Bob pounded his fist on the table savagely; he had been so looking forward to going with his father as an apprentice shearer, and Archibald’s was to have been his first pen. “Why should he do a dirty thing like this to us, Daddy? We were due to start there tomorrow.”

“He doesn’t say why, Bob. I suppose some scab contractor undercut me.”

“Oh, Paddy!” Fee sighed.

Baby Hal began to cry from the big bassinet by the stove, but before Fee could move Meggie was up; Frank had come back inside the door and was standing, tea in hand, watching his father narrowly.

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to go and see Archibald,” Paddy said at last. “It’s too late now to look for another shed to replace his, but I do think he owes me a better explanation than this. We’ll just have to hope we can find work milking until Willoughby’s shed starts in July.”

Meggie pulled a square of white towel from the huge pile sitting by the stove warming and spread it carefully on the work table, then lifted the crying child out of the wicker crib. The Cleary hair glittered sparsely on his little skull as Meggie changed his diaper swiftly, and as efficiently as her mother could have done.

“Little Mother Meggie,” Frank said, to tease her.

“I’m not!” she answered indignantly. “I’m just helping Mum.”

“I know,” he said gently. “You’re a good girl, wee Meggie.” He tugged at the white taffeta bow on the back of her head until it hung lopsided.

Up came the big grey eyes to his face adoringly; over the nodding head of the baby she might have been his own age, or older. There was a pain in his chest, that this should have fallen upon her at an age when the only baby she ought to be caring for was Agnes, now relegated forgotten to the bedroom. If it wasn’t for her and their mother, he would have been gone long since. He looked at his father sourly, the cause of the new life creating such chaos in the house. Served him right, getting done out of his shed.

Somehow the other boys and even Meggie had never intruded on his thoughts the way Hal did; but when Fee’s waistline began to swell this time, he was old enough himself to be married and a father. Everyone except little Meggie had been uncomfortable about it, his mother especially. The furtive glances of the boys made her shrink like a rabbit; she could not meet Frank’s eyes or quench the shame in her own. Nor should any woman go through that, Frank said to himself for the thousandth time, remembering the horrifying moans and cries which had come from her bedroom the night Hal was born; of age now, he hadn’t been packed off elsewhere like the others. Served Daddy right, losing his shed. A decent man would have left her alone.

His mother’s head in the new electric light was spun gold, the pure profile as she looked down the long table at Paddy unspeakably beautiful. How had someone as lovely and refined as she married an itinerant shearer from the bogs of Galway? Wasting herself and her Spode china, her damask table napery and her Persian rugs in the parlor that no one ever saw, because she didn’t fit in with the wives of Paddy’s peers. She made them too conscious of their vulgar loud voices, their bewilderment when faced with more than one fork.

Sometimes on a Sunday she would go into the lonely parlor, sit down at the spinet under the window and play, though her touch had long gone from want of time to practice and she could no longer manage any but the simplest pieces. He would sit beneath the window among the lilacs and the lilies, and close his eyes to listen. There was a sort of vision he had then, of his mother clad in a long bustled gown of palest pink shadow lace sitting at the spinet in a huge ivory room, great branches of candles all around her. It would make him long to weep, but he never wept anymore; not since that night in the barn after the police had brought him home.

Meggie had put Hal back in the bassinet, and gone to stand beside her mother. There was another one wasted. The same proud, sensitive profile; something of Fiona about her hands, her child’s body. She would be very like her mother when she, too, was a woman. And who would marry her? Another oafish Irish shearer, or a clodhopping yokel from some Wahine dairy farm? She was worth more, but she was not born to more. There was no way out, that was what everyone said, and every year longer that he lived seemed to bear it out.

Suddenly conscious of his fixed regard, Fee and Meggie turned together, smiling at him with the peculiar tenderness women save for the most beloved men in their lives. Frank put his cup on the table and went out to feed the dogs, wishing he could weep, or commit murder. Anything which might banish the pain.

Three days after Paddy lost the Archibald shed, Mary Carson’s letter came. He had opened it in the Wahine post office the moment he collected his mail, and came back to the house skipping like a child.

“We’re going to Australia!” he yelled, waving the expensive vellum pages under his family’s stunned noses.

There was silence, all eyes riveted on him. Fee’s were shocked, so were Meggie’s, but every male pair had lit with joy. Frank’s blazed.

“But, Paddy, why should she think of you so suddenly after all these years?” Fee asked after she had read the letter. “Her money’s not new to her, nor is her isolation. I never remember her offering to help us before.”

“It seems she’s frightened of dying alone,” he said, as much to reassure himself as Fee. “You saw what she wrote: ‘I am not young, and you and your boys are my heirs. I think we ought to see each other before I die, and it’s time you learned how to run your inheritance. I have the intention of making you my head stockman—it will be excellent training, and those of your boys who are old enough to work may have employment as stockmen also. Drogheda will become a family concern, run by the family without help from outsiders.’”

“Does she say anything about sending us the money to get to Australia?” Fee asked.

Paddy’s back stiffened. “I wouldn’t dream of dunning her for that!” he snapped. “We can get to Australia without begging from her; I have enough put by.”

“I think she ought to pay our way,” Fee maintained stubbornly, and to everyone’s shocked surprise; she did not often voice an opinion. “Why should you give up your life here and go off to work for her on the strength of a promise given in a letter? She’s never lifted a finger to help us before, and I don’t trust her. All I ever remember your saying about her was that she had the tightest clutch on a pound you’d ever seen. After all, Paddy, it’s not as if you know her so very well; there was such a big gap between you in age, and she went to Australia before you were old enough to start school.”

“I don’t see how that alters things now, and if she is tight-fisted, all the more for us to inherit. No, Fee, we’re going to Australia, and we’ll pay our own way there.”

Fee said no more. It was impossible to tell from her face whether she resented being so summarily dismissed.

“Hooray, we’re going to Australia!” Bob shouted, grabbing at his father’s shoulder. Jack, Hughie and Stu jigged up and down, and Frank was smiling, his eyes seeing nothing in the room but something far beyond it. Only Fee and Meggie wondered and feared, hoping painfully it would all come to nothing, for their lives could be no easier in Australia, just the same things under strange conditions.

“Where’s Gillanbone?” Stuart asked.

Out came the old atlas; poor though the Clearys were, there were several shelves of books behind the kitchen dining table. The boys pored over yellowing pages until they found New South Wales. Used to small New Zealand distances, it didn’t occur to them to consult the scale of miles in the bottom left-hand corner. They just naturally assumed New South Wales was the same size as the North Island of New Zealand. And there was Gillanbone, up toward the top left-hand corner; about the same distance from Sydney as Wanganui was from Auckland, it seemed, though the dots indicating towns were far fewer than on the North Island map.

“It’s a very old atlas,” Paddy said. “Australia is like America, growing in leaps and bounds. I’m sure there are a lot more towns these days.”

They would have to go steerage on the ship, but it was only three days after all, not too bad. Not like the weeks and weeks between England and the Antipodes. All they could afford to take with them were clothes, china, cutlery, household linens, cooking utensils and those shelves of precious books; the furniture would have to be sold to cover the cost of shipping Fee’s few bits and pieces in the parlor, her spinet and rugs and chairs.

“I won’t hear of your leaving them behind,” Paddy told Fee firmly.

“Are you sure we can afford it?”

“Positive. As to the other furniture, Mary says she’s readying the head stockman’s house and that it’s got everything we’re likely to be needing. I’m glad we don’t have to live in the same house as Mary.”

“So am I,” said Fee.

Paddy went into Wanganui to book them an eight-berth steerage cabin on the Wahine; strange that the ship and their nearest town should have the same name. They were due to sail at the end of August, so by the beginning of that month everyone started realizing the big adventure was actually going to happen. The dogs had to be given away, the horses and the buggy sold, the furniture loaded onto old Angus MacWhirter’s dray and taken into Wanganui for auction, Fee’s few pieces crated along with the china and linen and books and kitchen goods.

Frank found his mother standing by the beautiful old spinet, stroking its faintly pink, streaky paneling and looking vaguely at the powdering of gold dust on her fingertips.

“Did you always have it, Mum?” he asked.

“Yes. What was actually mine they couldn’t take from me when I married. The spinet, the Persian carpets, the Louis Quinze sofa and chairs, the Regency escritoire. Not much, but they were rightfully mine.” The grey, wistful eyes stared past his shoulder at the oil painting on the wall behind him, dimmed with age a little, but still showing clearly the golden-haired woman in her pale-pink lace gown, crinolined with a hundred and seven flounces.

“Who was she?” he asked curiously, turning his head. “I’ve always wanted to know.”

“A great lady.”

“Well, she’s got to be related to you; she looks like you a bit.”

“Her? A relation of mine?” The eyes left their contemplation of the picture and rested on her son’s face ironically. “Now, do I look as if I could ever have had a relative like her?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve cobwebs in your brain; brush them out.”

“I wish you’d tell me, Mum.”

She sighed and shut the spinet, dusting the gold off her fingers. “There’s nothing to tell, nothing at all. Come on, help me move these things into the middle of the room, so Daddy can pack them.”

The voyage was a nightmare. Before the Wahine was out of Wellington harbor they were all seasick, and they continued to be seasick all the way across twelve hundred miles of gale-stirred, wintry seas. Paddy took the boys up on deck and kept them there in spite of the bitter wind and constant spray, only going below to see his women and baby when some kind soul volunteered to keep an eye on his four miserable, retching boys. Much though he yearned for fresh air, Frank had elected to remain below to guard the women. The cabin was tiny, stifling and reeked of oil, for it was below the water line and toward the bow, where the ship’s motion was most violent.

Some hours out of Wellington Frank and Meggie became convinced their mother was going to die; the doctor, summoned from first class by a very worried steward, shook his head over her pessimistically.

“Just as well it‘s only a short voyage,” he said, instructing his nurse to find milk for the baby.

Between bouts of retching Frank and Meggie managed to bottle-feed Hal, who didn’t take to it kindly. Fee had stopped trying to vomit and had sunk into a kind of coma, from which they could not rouse her. The steward helped Frank put her in the top bunk, where the air was a little less stale, and holding a towel to his mouth to stem the watery bile he still brought up, Frank perched himself on the edge beside her, stroking the matted yellow hair back from her brow. Hour after hour he stuck to his post in spite of his own sickness; every time Paddy came in he was with his mother, stroking her hair, while Meggie huddled on a lower berth with Hal, a towel to her mouth.

Three hours out of Sydney the seas dropped to a glassy calm and fog stole in furtively from the far Antarctic, wrapping itself about the old ship. Meggie, reviving a little, imagined it bellowed regularly in pain now the terrible buffeting was over. They inched through the gluey greyness as stealthily as a hunted thing until that deep, monotonous bawl sounded again from somewhere on the superstructure, a lost and lonely, indescribably sad noise. Then all around them the air was filled with mournful bellows as they slipped through ghostly smoking water into the harbor. Meggie never forgot the sound of foghorns, her first introduction to Australia.

Paddy carried Fee off the Wahine in his arms, Frank following with the baby, Meggie with a case, each of the boys stumbling wearily under some kind of burden. They had come into Pyrmont, a meaningless name, on a foggy winter morning at the end of August, 1921. An enormous line of taxis waited outside the iron shed on the wharf; Meggie gaped round-eyed, for she had never seen so many cars in one place at one time. Somehow Paddy packed them all into a single cab, its driver volunteering to take them to the People’s Palace.

“That’s the place for youse, mate,” he told Paddy. “It’s a hotel for the workingman run by the Sallies.”

The streets were thronged with cars seeming to rush in all directions; there were very few horses. They stared raptly out of the taxi windows at the tall brick buildings, the narrow winding streets, the rapidity with which crowds of people seemed to merge and dissolve in some strange urban ritual. Wellington had awed them, but Sydney made Wellington look like a small country town.

While Fee rested in one of the myriad rooms of the warren the Salvation Army fondly called the People’s Palace, Paddy went off to Central Railway Station to see when they could get a train for Gillanbone. Quite recovered, the boys clamored to go with him, for they had been told it was not very far, and that the way was all shops, including one which sold squill candy. Envying their youth, Paddy yielded, for he wasn’t sure how strong his own legs were after three days of seasickness. Frank and Meggie stayed with Fee and the baby, longing to go, too, but more concerned that their mother be better. Indeed, she seemed to gain strength rapidly once off the ship, and had drunk a bowl of soup and nibbled a slice of toast brought to her by one of the workingman’s bonneted angels.

“If we don’t go tonight, Fee, it’s a week until the next through train,” Paddy said when he returned. “Do you think you could manage the journey tonight?”

Fee sat up, shivering. “I can manage.”

“I think we ought to wait,” Frank said hardily. “I don’t think Mum’s well enough to travel.”

“What you don’t seem to understand, Frank, is that if we miss tonight’s train we have to wait a whole week, and I just don’t have the price of a week’s stay in Sydney in my pocket. This is a big country, and where we’re going isn’t served by a daily train. We could get as far as Dubbo on any one of three trains tomorrow, but then we’d have to wait for a local connection, and they told me we’d suffer a lot more traveling that way than if we make the effort to catch tonight’s express.”

“I’ll manage, Paddy,” Fee repeated. “I’ve got Frank and Meggie; I’ll be all right.” Her eyes were on Frank, pleading for his silence.

“Then I’ll send Mary a telegram now, telling her to expect us tomorrow night.”

Central Station was bigger than any building the Clearys had ever been inside, a vast glass cylinder which seemed simultaneously to echo and absorb the din of thousands of people waiting beside battered, strapped suitcases and fixedly watching a giant indicator board which men with long poles altered by hand. In the gathering evening darkness they found themselves a part of the throng, their eyes on the steel concertina gates of platform five; though shut, they bore a large hand-painted sign saying GILLANBONE MAIL. On platform one and platform two a terrific activity heralded the imminent departure of the Brisbane and Melbourne night expresses, passengers crowding through the barriers. Soon it was their turn, as the gates of platform five squashed themselves open and the people began eagerly to move.

Paddy found them an empty second-class compartment, put the older boys by the windows and Fee, Meggie and the baby by the sliding doors which led into the long corridor connecting compartments. Faces would peer in hopefully in sight of a spare seat, to vanish horrified at the sight of so many young children. Sometimes being a large family was an advantage.

The night was cold enough to warrant unstrapping of the big tartan traveling rugs all the suitcases bore on their outsides; though the carriage was not heated, steel boxes full of hot ashes lay along the floor radiating warmth, and no one had expected heating anyway because nothing in Australia or New Zealand was ever heated.

“How far is it, Daddy?” Meggie asked as the train drew out, clanking and rocking gently across an eternity of points.

“A long way further than it looked on our atlas, Meggie. Six hundred and ten miles. We’ll be there late tomorrow afternoon.”

The boys gasped, but forgot it at the blossoming of a fairyland of lights outside; everyone clustered at the windows and watched while the first miles flew by and still the houses did not diminish. The speed increased, the lights grew scattered and finally went out, replaced by a constant flurry of sparks streaming past in a howling wind. When Paddy took the boys outside so Fee could feed Hal, Meggie gazed after them longingly. These days it seemed she was not to be included as one of the boys, not since the baby had disrupted her life and chained her to the house as firmly as her mother was. Not that she really minded, she told herself loyally. He was such a dear little fellow, the chief delight of her life, and it was nice to have Mum treat her as another grown-up lady. What caused Mum to grow babies she had no idea, but the result was lovely. She gave Hal to Fee; the train stopped not long after, creaking and squealing, and seemed to stand hours panting for breath. She was dying to open the window and look out, but the compartment was growing very cold in spite of the hot ashes on the floor.

Paddy came in from the corridor with a steaming cup of tea for Fee, who put Hal back on the seat, glutted and sleepy.

“What is it?” she asked.

“A place called Valley Heights. We take on another engine here for the climb to Lithgow, the girl in the refreshment room said.”

“How long have I got to drink this?”

“Fifteen minutes. Frank’s getting you some sandwiches and I’ll see the boys are fed. Our next refreshment stop is a placed called Blayney, much later in the night.”

Meggie shared her mother’s cup of hot, sugary tea, suddenly unbearably excited, and gobbled her sandwich when Frank brought it. He settled her on the long seat below baby Hal, tucked a rug firmly around her, and then did the same for Fee, stretched out full length on the seat opposite. Stuart and Hughie were bedded down on the floor between the seats, but Paddy told Fee that he was taking Bob, Frank and Jack several compartments down to talk to some shearers, and would spend the night there. It was much nicer than the ship, clicking along to the rhythmic huff-a-huff of the two engines, listening to the wind in the telegraph wires, the occasional flurry of furious huffs as steel wheels slipped on sloping steel rails, frantically sought traction; Meggie went to sleep.

In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees! The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of it rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by stands of thin, spinding, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression, but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.

From freezing night it turned to scorching day as the sun climbed toward its zenith and the train racketed on and on and on, stopping occasionally in some tiny town full of bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles; cars were scarce out here, it seemed. Paddy opened both the windows all the way in spite of the soot which swirled in and settled on everything; it was so hot they were gasping, their heavy New Zealand winter clothing sticking and itching. It did not seem possible that anywhere outside of hell could be so hot in winter.

Gillanbone came with the dying sun, a strange small collection of ramshackle wooden and corrugated iron buildings along either side of one dusty wide street, treeless and tired. The melting sun had licked a golden paste over everything, and gave the town a transient gilded dignity which faded even as they stood on the platform watching. It became once more a typical settlement on the very edge of the Back of Beyond, a last outpost in a steadily diminishing rainfall belt; not far away westward began two thousand miles of the Never-Never, the desert lands where it could not rain.

A resplendent black car was standing in the station yard, and striding unconcernedly toward them through the inches-deep dust came a priest. His long soutane made him seem a figure out of the past, as if he did not move on feet like ordinary men, but drifted dreamlike; the dust rose and billowed around him, red in the last of the sunset.

“Hello, I’m Father de Bricassart,” he said, holding out his hand to Paddy. “You have to be Mary’s brother; you’re the living image of her.” He turned to Fee and lifted her limp hand to his lips, smiling in genuine astonishment; no one could spot a gentlewoman quicker than Father Ralph. “Why, you’re beautiful!” he said, as if it were the most natural remark in the world for a priest to make, and then his eyes went onward to the boys, standing together in a huddle. They rested for a moment with puzzled bewilderment on Frank, who had charge of the baby, and ticked off each boy as they got smaller and smaller. Behind them, all by herself, Meggie stood gaping up at him with her mouth open, as if she were looking at God. Without seeming to notice how his fine serge robe wallowed in the dust, he stepped past the boys and squatted down to hold Meggie between his hands, and they were firm, gentle, kind. “Well! And who are you?” he asked her, smiling.

“Meggie,” she said.

“Her name’s Meghann.” Frank scowled, hating this beautiful man, his stunning height.

“My favorite name, Meghann.” He straightened, but held Meggie’s hand in his. “It will be better for you to stay at the presbytery tonight,” he said, leading Meggie toward the car. “I’ll drive you out to Drogheda in the morning; it’s too far after the train ride from Sydney.”

Aside from the Hotel Imperial, the Catholic church, school, convent and presbytery were the only brick edifices in Gillanbone, even the big public school having to content itself with timber frame. Now that darkness had fallen, the air had grown incredibly chill; but in the presbytery lounge a huge log fire was blazing, and the smell of food came tantalizingly from somewhere beyond. The housekeeper, a wizened old Scotswoman with amazing energy, bustled about showing them their rooms, chattering all the while in a broad western Highlands accent.

Used to the touch-me-not reserve of the Wahine priests, the Clearys found it hard to cope with Father Ralph’s easy, cheerful bonhomie. Only Paddy thawed, for he could remember the friendliness of the priests in his native Galway, their closeness to lesser beings. The rest ate their supper in careful silence and escaped upstairs as soon as they could, Paddy reluctantly following. To him, his religion was a warmth and a consolation; but to the rest of his family it was something rooted in fear, a do-it-or-thou-shalt-be-damned compulsion.

When they had gone, Father Ralph stretched out in his favorite chair, staring at the fire, smoking a cigarette and smiling. In his mind’s eye he was passing the Clearys in review, as he had first seen them from the station yard. The man so like Mary, but bowed with hard work and very obviously not of her malicious disposition; his weary, beautiful wife, who looked as if she ought to have descended from a landaulet drawn by matched white horses; dark and surly Frank, with black eyes, black eyes; the sons, most of them like their father, but the youngest one, Stuart, very like his mother, he’d be a handsome man when he grew up; impossible to tell what the baby would become; and Meggie. The sweetest, the most adorable little girl he had ever seen; hair of a color which defied description, not red and not gold, a perfect fusion of both. And looking up at him with silver-grey eyes of such a lambent purity, like melted jewels. Shrugging, he threw the cigarette stub into the fire and got to his feet. He was getting fanciful in his old age; melted jewels, indeed! More likely his own eyes were coming down with the sandy blight.

In the morning he drove his overnight guests to Drogheda, so inured by now to the landscape that he derived great amusement from their comments. The last hill lay two hundred miles to the east; this was the land of the black soil plains, he explained. Just sweeping, lightly timbered grasslands as flat as a board. The day was as hot as the previous one, but the Daimler was a great deal more comfortable to travel in than the train had been. And they had started out early, fasting, Father Ralph’s vestments and the Blessed Sacrament packed carefully in a black case.

“The sheep are dirty!” said Meggie dolefully, gazing at the many hundreds of rusty-red bundles with their questing noses down into the grass.

“Ah, I can see I ought to have chosen New Zealand,” the priest said. “It must be like Ireland, then, and have nice cream sheep.”

“Yes, it is like Ireland in many ways; it has the same beautiful green grass. But it’s wilder, a lot less tamed,” Paddy answered. He liked Father Ralph very much.

Just then a group of emus lurched to their feet and commenced to run, fleet as the wind, their ungainly legs a blur, their long necks stretched out. The children gasped and burst out laughing, enchanted at seeing giant birds which ran instead of flying.

“What a pleasure it is not to have to get out and open these wretched gates,” Father Ralph said as the last one was shut behind them and Bob, who had done gate duty for him, scrambled back into the car.

After the shocks Australia had administered to them in bewildering rapidity, Drogheda homestead seemed like a touch of home, with its gracious Georgian façade and its budding wistaria vines, its thousands of rose-bushes.

“Are we going to live here?” Meggie squeaked.

“Not exactly,” the priest said quickly. “The house you’re going to live in is about a mile further on, down by the creek.”

Mary Carson was waiting to receive them in the vast drawing room and did not rise to greet her brother, but forced him to come to her as she sat in her wing chair.

“Well, Paddy,” she said pleasantly enough, looking past him fixedly to where Father Ralph stood with Meggie in his arms, and her little arms locked tightly about his neck. Mary Carson got up ponderously, without greeting Fee or the children.

“Let us hear Mass immediately,” she said. “I‘m sure Father de Bricassart is anxious to be on his way.”.

“Not at all, my dear Mary.” He laughed, blue eyes gleaming. “I shall say Mass, we’ll all have a good hot breakfast at your table, and then I’ve promised Meggie I’ll show her where she’s going to live.”

“Meggie,” said Mary Carson.

“Yes, this is Meggie. Which rather begins the introductions at the tail, doesn’t it? Let me begin at the head, Mary, please. This is Fiona.”

Mary Carson nodded curtly, and paid scant attention as Father Ralph ran through the boys; she was too busy watching the priest and Meggie.

One

1915–1917
Meggie

1

On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told her that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated.

Something fine and mistily gold began to poke through a corner; she attacked the paper faster, peeling it away in long, ragged strips.

“Agnes! Oh, Agnes!” she said lovingly, blinking at the doll lying there in a tattered nest.

A miracle indeed. Only once in her life had Meggie been into Wahine; all the way back in May, because she had been a very good girl. So perched in the buggy beside her mother, on her best behavior, she had been too excited to see or remember much. Except for Agnes, the beautiful doll sitting on the store counter, dressed in a crinoline of pink satin with cream lace frills all over it. Right then and there in her mind she had christened it Agnes, the only name she knew elegant enough for such a peerless creature. Yet over the ensuing months her yearning after Agnes contained nothing of hope; Meggie didn’t own a doll and had no idea little girls and dolls belonged together. She played happily with the whistles and slingshots and battered soldiers her brothers discarded, got her hands dirty and her boots muddy.

It never occurred to her that Agnes was to play with. Stroking the bright pink folds of the dress, grander than any she had ever seen on a human woman, she picked Agnes up tenderly. The doll had jointed arms and legs which could be moved anywhere; even her neck and tiny, shapely waist were jointed. Her golden hair was exquisitely dressed in a high pompadour studded with pearls, her pale bosom peeped out of a foaming fichu of cream lace fastened with a pearl pin. The finely painted bone china face was beautiful, left unglazed to give the delicately tinted skin a natural matte texture. Astonishingly lifelike blue eyes shone between lashes of real hair, their irises streaked and circled with a darker blue; fascinated, Meggie discovered that when Agnes lay back far enough, her eyes closed. High on one faintly flushed cheek she had a black beauty mark, and her dusky mouth was parted slightly to show tiny white teeth. Meggie put the doll gently on her lap, crossed her feet under her comfortably, and sat just looking.

She was still sitting behind the gorse bush when Jack and Hughie came rustling through the grass where it was too close to the fence to feel a scythe. Her hair was the typical Cleary beacon, all the Cleary children save Frank being martyred by a thatch some shade of red; Jack nudged his brother and pointed gleefully. They separated, grinning at each other, and pretended they were troopers after a Maori renegade. Meggie would not have heard them anyway, so engrossed was she in Agnes, humming softly to herself.

“What’s that you’ve got, Meggie?” Jack shouted, pouncing. “Show us!”

“Yes, show us!” Hughie giggled, outflanking her.

She clasped the doll against her chest and shook her head. “No, she’s mine! I got her for my birthday!”

“Show us, go on! We just want to have a look.”

Pride and joy won out. She held the doll so her brothers could see. “Look, isn’t she beautiful? Her name is Agnes.”

“Agnes? Agnes?” Jack gagged realistically. “What a soppy name! Why don’t you call her Margaret or Betty?”

“Because she’s Agnes!”

Hughie noticed the joint in the doll’s wrist, and whistled. “Hey, Jack, look! It can move its hand!”

“Where? Let’s see.”

“No!” Meggie hugged the doll close again, tears forming. “No, you’ll break her! Oh, Jack, don’t take her away—you’ll break her!”

“Pooh!” His dirty brown hands locked about her wrists, closing tightly. “Want a Chinese burn? And don’t be such a crybaby, or I’ll tell Bob.” He squeezed her skin in opposite directions until it stretched whitely, as Hughie got hold of the doll’s skirts and pulled. “Gimme, or I’ll do it really hard!”

“No! Don’t, Jack, please don’t! You’ll break her, I know you will! Oh, please leave her alone! Don’t take her, please!” In spite of the cruel grip on her wrists she clung to the doll, sobbing and kicking.

“Got it” Hughie whooped, as the doll slid under Meggie’s crossed forearms.

Jack and Hughie found her just as fascinating as Meggie had; off came the dress, the petticoats and long, frilly drawers. Agnes lay naked while the boys pushed and pulled at her, forcing one foot round the back of her head, making her look down her spine, every possible contortion they could think of. They took no notice of Meggie as she stood crying; it did not occur to her to seek help, for in the Cleary family those who could not fight their own battles got scant aid or sympathy, and that went for girls, too.

The doll’s golden hair tumbled down, the pearls flew winking into the long grass and disappeared. A dusty boot came down thoughtlessly on the abandoned dress, smearing grease from the smithy across its satin. Meggie dropped to her knees, scrabbling frantically to collect the miniature clothes before more damage was done them, then she began picking among the grass blades where she thought the pearls might have fallen. Her tears were blinding her, the grief in her heart new, for until now she had never owned anything worth grieving for.

Frank threw the shoe hissing into cold water and straightened his back; it didn’t ache these days, so perhaps he was used to smithying. Not before time, his father would have said, after six months at it. But Frank knew very well how long it was since his introduction to the forge and anvil; he had measured the time in hatred and resentment. Throwing the hammer into its box, he pushed the lank black hair off his brow with a trembling hand and dragged the old leather apron from around his neck. His shirt lay on a heap of straw in the corner; he plodded across to it and stood for a moment staring at the splintering barn wall as if it did not exist, his black eyes wide and fixed.

He was very small, not above five feet three inches, and thin still as striplings are, but the bare shoulders and arms had muscles already knotted from working with the hammer, and the pale, flawless skin gleamed with sweat. The darkness of his hair and eyes had a foreign tang, his full-lipped mouth and wide-bridged nose not the usual family shape, but there was Maori blood on his mother’s side and in him it showed. He was nearly sixteen years old, where Bob was barely eleven, Jack ten, Hughie nine, Stuart five and little Meggie three. Then he remembered that today Meggie was four; it was December 8th. He put on his shirt and left the barn.

The house lay on top of a small hill about one hundred feet higher than the barn and stables. Like all New Zealand houses, it was wooden, rambling over many squares and of one story only, on the theory that if an earthquake struck, some of it might be left standing. Around it gorse grew everywhere, at the moment smothered in rich yellow flowers; the grass was green and luxuriant, like all New Zealand grass. Not even in the middle of winter, when the frost sometimes lay unmelted all day in the shade, did the grass turn brown, and the long, mild summer only tinted it an even richer green. The rains fell gently without bruising the tender sweetness of all growing things, there was no snow, and the sun had just enough strength to cherish, never enough to sap. New Zealand’s scourges thundered up out of the bowels of the earth rather than descended from the skies. There was always a suffocated sense of waiting, an intangible shuddering and thumping that actually transmitted itself through the feet. For beneath the ground lay awesome power, power of such magnitude that thirty years before a whole towering mountain had disappeared; steam gushed howling out of cracks in the sides of innocent hills, volcanoes spumed smoke into the sky and the alpine streams ran warm. Huge lakes of mud boiled oilily, the seas lapped uncertainly at cliffs which might not be there to greet the next incoming tide, and in places the earth’s crust was only nine hundred feet thick.

Yet it was a gentle, gracious land. Beyond the house stretched an undulating plain as green as the emerald in Fiona Cleary’s engagement ring, dotted with thousands of creamy bundles close proximity revealed as sheep. Where the curving hills scalloped the edge of the light-blue sky Mount Egmont soared ten thousand feet, sloping into the clouds, its sides still white with snow, its symmetry so perfect that even those like Frank who saw it every day of their lives never ceased to marvel.

It was quite a pull from the barn to the house, but Frank hurried because he knew he ought not to be going; his father’s orders were explicit. Then as he rounded the corner of the house he saw the little group by the gorse bush.

Frank had driven his mother into Wahine to buy Meggie’s doll, and he was still wondering what had prompted her to do it. She wasn’t given to impractical birthday presents, there wasn’t the money for them, and she had never given a toy to anyone before. They all got clothes; birthdays and Christmases replenished sparse wardrobes. But apparently Meggie had seen the doll on her one and only trip into town, and Fiona had not forgotten. When Frank questioned her, she muttered something about a girl needing a doll, and quickly changed the subject.

Jack and Hughie had the doll between them on the front path, manipulating its joints callously. All Frank could see of Meggie was her back, as she stood watching her brothers desecrate Agnes. Her neat white socks had slipped in crinkled folds around her little black boots, and the pink of her legs was visible for three or four inches below the hem of her brown velvet Sunday dress. Down her back cascaded a mane of carefully curled hair, sparkling in the sun; not red and not gold, but somewhere in between. The white taffeta bow which held the front curls back from her face hung draggled and limp; dust smeared her dress. She held the doll’s clothes tightly in one hand, the other pushing vainly at Hughie.

“You bloody little bastards!”

Jack and Hughie scrambled to their feet and ran, the doll forgotten; when Frank swore it was politic to run.

“If I catch you flaming little twerps touching that doll again I’ll brand your shitty little arses!” Frank yelled after them.

He bent down and took Meggie’s shoulders between his hands, shaking her gently.

“Here, here there’s no need to cry! Come on now, they’ve gone and they’ll never touch your dolly again, I promise. Give me a smile for your birthday, eh?”

Her face was swollen, her eyes running; she stared at Frank out of grey eyes so large and full of tragedy that he felt his throat tighten. Pulling a dirty rag from his breeches pocket, he rubbed it clumsily over her face, then pinched her nose between its folds.

“Blow!”

She did as she was told, hiccuping noisily as her tears dried. “Oh, Fruh-Fruh-Frank, they too-too-took Agnes away from me!” She sniffled. “Her huh-huh-hair all falled down and she loh-loh-lost all the pretty widdle puh-puh-pearls in it! They all falled in the gruh-gruh-grass and I can’t find them!”

The tears welled up again, splashing on Frank’s hand; he stared at his wet skin for a moment, then licked the drops off.

“Well, we’ll have to find them, won’t we? But you can’t find anything while you’re crying, you know, and what’s all this baby talk? I haven’t heard you say ‘widdle’ instead of ‘little’ for six months! Here, blow your nose again and then pick up poor…Agnes? If you don’t put her clothes on, she’ll get sunburned.”

He made her sit on the edge of the path and gave her the doll gently, then he crawled about searching the grass until he gave a triumphant whoop and held up a pearl.

“There! First one! We’ll find them all, you wait and see.”

Meggie watched her oldest brother adoringly while he picked among the grass blades, holding up each pearl as he found it; then she remembered how delicate Agnes’s skin must be, how easily it must burn, and bent her attention on clothing the doll. There did not seem any real injury. Her hair was tangled and loose, her arms and legs dirty where the boys had pushed and pulled at them, but everything still worked. A tortoise-shell comb nestled above each of Meggie’s ears; she tugged at one until it came free, and began to comb Agnes’s hair, which was genuine human hair, skillfully knotted onto a base of glue and gauze, and bleached until it was the color of gilded straw.

She was yanking inexpertly at a large knot when the dreadful thing happened. Off came the hair, all of it, dangling in a tousled clump from the teeth of the comb. Above Agnes’s smooth broad brow there was nothing; no head, no bald skull. Just an awful, yawning hole. Shivering in terror, Meggie leaned forward to peer inside the doll’s cranium. The inverted contours of cheeks and chin showed dimly, light glittered between the parted lips with their teeth a black, animal silhouette, and above all this were Agnes’s eyes, two horrible clicking balls speared by a wire rod that cruelly pierced her head.

Meggie’s scream was high and thin, unchildlike; she flung Agnes away and went on screaming, hands covering her face, shaking and shuddering. Then she felt Frank pull at her fingers and take her into his arms, pushing her face into the side of his neck. Wrapping her arms about him, she took comfort from him until his nearness calmed her enough to become aware of how nice he smelled, all horses and sweat and iron.

When she quietened, Frank made her tell him what was the matter; he picked up the doll and stared into its empty head in wonder, trying to remember if his infant universe had been so beset by strange terrors. But his unpleasant phantoms were of people and whispers and cold glances. Of his mother’s face pinched and shrinking, her hand trembling as it held his, the set of her shoulders.

What had Meggie seen, to make her take on so? He fancied she would not have been nearly so upset if poor Agnes had only bled when she lost her hair. Bleeding was a fact; someone in the Cleary family bled copiously at least once a week.

“Her eyes, her eyes!” Meggie whispered, refusing to look at the doll.

“She’s a bloody marvel, Meggie,” he murmured, his face nuzzling into her hair. How fine it was, how rich and full of color!

It took him half an hour of cajoling to make her look at Agnes, and half an hour more elapsed before he could persuade her to peer into the scalped hole. He showed her how the eyes worked, how very carefully they had been aligned to fit snugly yet swing easily opened or closed.

“Come on now, it’s time you went inside,” he told her, swinging her up into his arms and tucking the doll between his chest and hers. “We’ll get Mum to fix her up, eh? We’ll wash and iron her clothes, and glue on her hair again. I’ll make you some proper hairpins out of those pearls, too, so they can’t fall out and you can do her hair in all sorts of ways.”

Fiona Cleary was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. She was a very handsome, very fair woman a little under medium height, but rather hard-faced and stern; she had an excellent figure with a tiny waist which had not thickened, in spite of the six babies she had carried beneath it. Her dress was grey calico, its skirts brushing the spotless floor, its front protected by an enormous starched white apron that looped around her neck and tied in the small of her spine with a crisp, perfect bow. From waking to sleeping she lived in the kitchen and back garden, her stout black boots beating a circular path from stove to laundry to vegetable patch to clotheslines and thence to the stove again.

She put her knife on the table and stared at Frank and Meggie, the corners of her beautiful mouth turning down.

“Meggie, I let you put on your Sunday-best dress this morning on one condition, that you didn’t get it dirty. And look at you! What a little grub you are!”

“Mum, it wasn’t her fault,” Frank protested. “Jack and Hughie took her doll away to try and find out how the arms and legs worked. I promised we’d fix it up as good as new. We can, can’t we?”

“Let me see.” Fee held out her hand for the doll.

She was a silent woman, not given to spontaneous conversation. What she thought, no one ever knew, even her husband; she left the disciplining of the children to him, and did whatever he commanded without comment or complaint unless the circumstances were most unusual. Meggie had heard the boys whispering that she stood in as much awe of Daddy as they did, but if that was true she hid it under a veneer of impenetrable, slightly dour calm. She never laughed, nor did she ever lose her temper.

Finished her inspection, Fee laid Agnes on the dresser near the stove and looked at Meggie.

“I’ll wash her clothes tomorrow morning, and do her hair again. Frank can glue the hair on after tea tonight, I suppose, and give her a bath.”

The words were matter-of-fact rather than comforting. Meggie nodded, smiling uncertainly; sometimes she wanted so badly to hear her mother laugh, but her mother never did. She sensed that they shared a special something not common to Daddy and the boys, but there was no reaching beyond that rigid back, those never still feet. Mum would nod absently and flip her voluminous skirts expertly from stove to table as she continued working, working, working.

What none of the children save Frank could realize was that Fee was permanently, incurably tired. There was so much to be done, hardly any money to do it with, not enough time, and only one pair of hands. She longed for the day when Meggie would be old enough to help; already the child did simple tasks, but at barely four years of age it couldn’t possibly lighten the load. Six children, and only one of them, the youngest at that, a girl. All her acquaintances were simultaneously sympathetic and envious, but that didn’t get the work done. Her sewing basket had a mountain of socks in it still undarned, her knitting needles held yet another sock, and there was Hughie growing out of his sweaters and Jack not ready to hand his down.

Padraic Cleary was to home the week of Meggie’s birthday, purely by chance. It was too early for the shearing season, and he had work locally, plowing and planting. By profession he was a shearer of sheep, a seasonal occupation which lasted from the middle of summer to the end of winter, after which came lambing. Usually he managed to find plenty of work to tide him over spring and the first month of summer; helping with lambing, plowing, or spelling a local dairy farmer from his endless twice-a-day milking. Where there was work he went, leaving his family in the big old house to fend for themselves; not as harsh an action as it seemed. Unless one was lucky enough to own land, that was what one had to do.

When he came in a little after sunset the lamps were lit, and shadows played flickering games around the high ceiling. The boys were clustered on the back veranda playing with a frog, except for Frank; Padraic knew where he was, because he could hear the steady clocking of an axe from the direction of the woodheap. He paused on the veranda only long enough to plant a kick on Jack’s backside and clip Bob’s ear.

“Go and help Frank with the wood, you lazy little scamps. And it had better be done before Mum has tea on the table, or there’ll be skin and hair flying.”

He nodded to Fiona, busy at the stove; he did not kiss or embrace her, for he regarded displays of affection between husband and wife as something suitable only for the bedroom. As he used the jack to haul off his mud-caked boots, Meggie came skipping with his slippers, and he grinned down at the little girl with the curious sense of wonder he always knew at sight of her. She was so pretty, such beautiful hair; he picked up a curl and pulled it out straight, then let it go, just to see it jiggle and bounce as it settled back into place. Picking the child up, he went to sit in the only comfortable chair the kitchen possessed, a Windsor chair with a cushion tied to its seat, drawn close to the fire. Sighing softly, he sat down in it and pulled out his pipe, carelessly tapping out the spent dottle of tobacco in its bowl onto the floor. Meggie cuddled down on his lap and wound her arms about his neck, her cool little face turned up to his as she played her nightly game of watching the light filter through his short stubble of golden beard.

“How are you, Fee?” Padraic Cleary asked his wife.

“All right, Paddy. Did you get the lower paddock done today?”

“Yes, all done. I can start on the upper first thing in the morning. Lord, but I’m tired!”

“I’ll bet. Did MacPherson give you the crotchety old mare again?”

“Too right. You don’t think he’d take the animal himself to let me have the roan, do you? My arms feel as if they’ve been pulled out of their sockets. I swear that mare has the hardest mouth in En Zed.”

“Never mind. Old Robertson’s horses are all good, and you’ll be there soon enough.”

“Can’t be soon enough.” He packed his pipe with coarse tobacco and pulled a taper from the big jar that stood near the stove. A quick flick inside the firebox door and it caught; he leaned back in his chair and sucked so deeply the pipe made bubbling noises. “How’s it feel to be four, Meggie?” he asked his daughter.

“Pretty good, Daddy.”

“Did Mum give you your present?”

“Oh, Daddy, how did you and Mum guess I wanted Agnes?”

“Agnes?” He looked swiftly toward Fee, smiling and quizzing her with his eyebrows. “Is that her name, Agnes?”

“Yes. She’s beautiful, Daddy. I want to look at her all day.”

“She’s lucky to have anything to look at,” Fee said grimly. “Jack and Hughie got hold of the doll before poor Meggie had a chance to see it properly.”

“Well, boys will be boys. Is the damage bad?”

“Nothing that can’t be mended. Frank caught them before it went too far.”

“Frank? What was he doing down here? He was supposed to be at the forge all day. Hunter wants his gates.”

“He was at the forge all day. He just came down for a tool of some sort,” Fee answered quickly; Padraic was too hard on Frank.

“Oh, Daddy, Frank is the best brother! He saved my Agnes from being killed, and he’s going to glue her hair on again for me after tea.”

“That’s good,” her father said drowsily, leaning his head back in the chair and closing his eyes.

It was hot in front of the stove, but he didn’t seem to notice; beads of sweat gathered on his forehead, glistening. He put his arms behind his head and fell into a doze.

It was from Padraic Cleary that his children got their various shades of thick, waving red hair, though none had inherited quite such an aggressively red head as his. He was a small man, all steel and springs in build, legs bowed from a lifetime among horses, arms elongated from years shearing sheep; his chest and arms were covered in a matted golden fuzz which would have been ugly had he been dark. His eyes were bright blue, crinkled up into a permanent squint like a sailor’s from gazing into the far distance, and his face was a pleasant one, with a whimsical smiling quality about it that made other men like him at a glance. His nose was magnificent, a true Roman nose which must have puzzled his Irish confreres, but Ireland has ever been a shipwreck coast. He still spoke with the soft quick slur of the Galway Irish, pronouncing his final t’s as th’s, but almost twenty years in the Antipodes had forced a quaint overlay upon it, so that his a’s came out as i’s and the speed of his speech had run down a little, like an old clock in need of a good winding. A happy man, he had managed to weather his hard and drudging existence better than most, and though he was a rigid disciplinarian with a heavy swing to his boot, all but one of his children adored him. If there was not enough bread to go around, he went without; if it was a choice between new clothes for him or new clothes for one of his offspring, he went without. In its way, that was more reliable evidence of love than a million easy kisses. His temper was very fiery, and he had killed a man once. Luck had been with him; the man was English, and there was a ship in Dun Laoghaire harbor bound for New Zealand on the tide.

Fiona went to the back door and shouted, “Tea!”

The boys trailed in gradually, Frank bringing up the rear with an armload of wood, which he dumped in the big box beside the stove. Padraic put Meggie down and walked to the head of the non-company dining table at the far end of the kitchen, while the boys seated themselves around its sides and Meggie scrambled up on top of the wooden box her father put on the chair nearest to him.

Fee served the food directly onto dinner plates at her worktable, more quickly and efficiently than a waiter; she carried them two at a time to her family, Paddy first, then Frank, and so on down to Meggie, with herself last.

“Erckle! Stew!” said Stuart, pulling faces as he picked up his knife and fork. “Why did you have to name me after stew?”

“Eat it,” his father growled.

The plates were big ones, and they were literally heaped with food: boiled potatoes, lamb stew and beans cut that day from the garden, ladled in huge portions.

In spite of the muted groans and sounds of disgust, everyone including Stu polished his plate clean with bread, and ate several slices more spread thickly with butter and native gooseberry jam. Fee sat down and bolted her meal, then got up at once to hurry to her worktable again, where into big soup plates she doled out great quantities of biscuit made with plenty of sugar and laced all through with jam. A river of steaming hot custard sauce was poured over each, and again she plodded to the dining table with the plates, two at a time. Finally she sat down with a sigh; this she could eat at her leisure.

“Oh, goodie! Jam roly-poly!” Meggie exclaimed, slopping her spoon up and down in the custard until the jam seeped through to make pink streaks in the yellow.

“Well, Meggie girl, it’s your birthday, so Mum made your favorite pudding,” her father said, smiling.

There were no complaints this time; no matter what the pudding was, it was consumed with gusto. The Clearys all had a sweet tooth.

No one carried a pound of superfluous flesh, in spite of the vast quantities of starchy food. They expended every ounce they ate in work or play. Vegetables and fruit were eaten because they were good for you, but it was the bread, potatoes, meat and hot floury puddings which staved off exhaustion.

After Fee had poured everyone a cup of tea from her giant pot, they stayed talking, drinking or reading for an hour or more, Paddy puffing on his pipe with his head in a library book, Fee continuously refilling cups, Bob immersed in another library book, while the younger children made plans for the morrow. School had dispersed for the long summer vacation; the boys were on the loose and eager to commence their allotted chores around the house and garden. Bob had to touch up the exterior paintwork where it was necessary, Jack and Hughie dealt with the woodheap, outbuildings and milking, Stuart tended the vegetables; play compared to the horrors of school. From time to time Paddy lifted his head from his book to add another job to the list, but Fee said nothing, and Frank sat slumped tiredly, sipping cup after cup of tea.

Finally Fee beckoned Meggie to sit on a high stool, and did up her hair in its nightly rags before packing her off to bed with Stu and Hughie; Jack and Bob begged to be excused and went outside to feed the dogs; Frank took Meggie’s doll to the worktable and began to glue its hair on again. Stretching, Padraic closed his book and put his pipe into the huge iridescent paua shell which served him as an ashtray.

“Well, Mother, I’m off to bed.”

“Good night, Paddy.”

Fee cleared the dishes off the dining table and got a big galvanized iron tub down from its hook on the wall. She put it at the opposite end of the worktable from Frank, and lifting the massive cast-iron kettle off the stove, filled it with hot water. Cold water from an old kerosene tin served to cool the steaming bath; swishing soap confined in a wire basket through it, she began to wash and rinse the dishes, stacking them against a cup.

Frank worked on the doll without raising his head, but as the pile of plates grew he got up silently to fetch a towel and began to dry them. Moving between the worktable and the dresser, he worked with the ease of long familiarity. It was a furtive, fearful game he and his mother played, for the most stringent rule in Paddy’s domain concerned the proper delegation of duties. The house was woman’s work, and that was that. No male member of the family was to put his hand to a female task. But each night after Paddy went to bed Frank helped his mother, Fee aiding and abetting him by delaying her dishwashing until they heard the thump of Paddy’s slippers hitting the floor. Once Paddy’s slippers were off he never came back to the kitchen.

Fee looked at Frank gently. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Frank. But you shouldn’t. You’ll be so tired in the morning.”

“It’s all right, Mum. Drying a few dishes won’t kill me. Little enough to make life easier for you.”

“It’s my job, Frank. I don’t mind.”

“I just wish we’d get rich one of these days, so you could have a maid.”

“That is wishful thinking!” She wiped her soapy red hands on the dishcloth and then pressed them into her sides, sighing. Her eyes as they rested on her son were vaguely worried, sensing his bitter discontent, more than the normal railing of a workingman against his lot. “Frank, don’t get grand ideas. They only lead to trouble. We’re working-class people, which means we don’t get rich or have maids. Be content with what you are and what you have. When you say things like this you’re insulting Daddy, and he doesn’t deserve it. You know that. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t gamble, and he works awfully hard for us. Not a penny he earns goes into his own pocket. It all comes to us.”

The muscular shoulders hunched impatiently, the dark face became harsh and grim. “But why should wanting more out of life than drudgery be so bad? I don’t see what’s wrong with wishing you had a maid.”

“It’s wrong because it can’t be! You know there’s no money to keep you at school, and if you can’t stay at school how are you ever going to be anything better than a manual worker? Your accent, your clothes and your hands show that you labor for a living. But it’s no disgrace to have calluses on your hands. As Daddy says, when a man’s hands are callused you know he’s honest.”

Frank shrugged and said no more. The dishes were all put away; Fee got out her sewing basket and sat down in Paddy’s chair by the fire, while Frank went back to the doll.

“Poor little Meggie!” he said suddenly.

“Why?”

“Today, when those wretched chaps were pulling her dolly about, she just stood there crying as if her whole world had fallen to bits.” He looked down at the doll, which was wearing its hair again. “Agnes! Where on earth did she get a name like that?”

“She must have heard me talking about Agnes Fortescue-Smythe, I suppose.”

“When I gave her the doll back she looked into its head and nearly died of fright. Something scared her about its eyes; I don’t know what.”

“Meggie’s always seeing things that aren’t there.”

“It’s a pity there isn’t enough money to keep the little children at school. They’re so clever.”

“Oh, Frank! If wishes were horses beggars might ride,” his mother said wearily. She passed her hand across her eyes, trembling a little, and stuck her darning needle deep into a ball of grey wool. “I can’t do any more. I’m too tried to see straight.”

“Go to bed, Mum. I’ll blow out the lamps.”

“As soon as I’ve stoked the fire.”

“I’ll do that.” He got up from the table and put the dainty china doll carefully down behind a cake tin on the dresser, where it would be out of harm’s way. He was not worried that the boys might attempt further rapine; they were more frightened of his vengeance than of their father’s, for Frank had a vicious streak. When he was with his mother or his sister it never appeared, but the boys had all suffered from it.

Fee watched him, her heart aching; there was something wild and desperate about Frank, an aura of trouble. If only he and Paddy got on better together! But they could never see eye to eye, and argued constantly. Maybe he was too concerned for her, maybe he was a bit of a mother’s boy. Her fault, if it was true. Yet it spoke of his loving heart, his goodness. He only wanted to make her life a little easier. And again she found herself yearning for the day when Meggie became old enough to take the burden of it from Frank’s shoulders.

She picked up a small lamp from the table, then put it down again and walked across to where Frank was squatted before the stove, packing wood into the big firebox and fiddling with the damper. His white arm was roped with prominent veins, his finely made hands too stained ever to come clean. Her own hand went out timidly, and very lightly smoothed the straight black hair out of his eyes; it was as close as she could bring herself to a caress.

“Good night, Frank, and thank you.”

The shadows wheeled and darted before the advancing light as Fee moved silently through the door leading into the front part of the house.

Frank and Bob shared the first bedroom; she pushed its door open noiselessly and held the lamp high, its light flooding the double bed in the corner. Bob was lying on his back with his mouth sagging open, quivering and twitching like a dog; she crossed to the bed and rolled him over onto his right side before he could pass into a full-fledged nightmare, then stayed looking down at him for a moment. How like Paddy he was!

Jack and Hughie were almost braided together in the next room. What dreadful scamps they were! Never out of mischief, but no malice in them. She tried vainly to separate them and restore some sort of order to their bedclothes, but the two curly red heads refused to be parted. Softly sighing, she gave up. How they managed to be refreshed after the kind of night they passed was beyond her, but they seemed to thrive on it.

The room where Meggie and Stuart slept was a dingy and cheerless place for two small children; painted a stuffy brown and floored in brown linoleum, no pictures on the walls. Just like the other bedrooms.

Stuart had turned himself upside down and was quite invisible except for his little nightshirted bottom sticking out of the covers where his head ought to have been; Fee found his head touching his knees, and as usual marveled that he had not suffocated. She slid her hand gingerly across the sheet and stiffened. Wet again! Well, it would have to wait until the morning, when no doubt the pillow would be wet, too. He always did that, reversed himself and then wet once more. Well, one bed-wetter among five boys wasn’t bad.

Meggie was curled into a little heap, with her thumb in her mouth and her rag-decorated hair all around her. The only girl. Fee cast her no more than a passing glance before leaving; there was no mystery to Meggie, she was female. Fee knew what her lot would be, and did not envy her or pity her. The boys were different; they were miracles, males alchemized out of her female body. It was hard not having help around the house, but it was worth it. Among his peers, Paddy’s sons were the greatest character reference he possessed. Let a man breed sons and he was a real man.

She closed the door to her own bedroom softly, and put the lamp down on a bureau. Her nimble fingers flew down the dozens of tiny buttons between the high collar and the hips of her dress, then peeled it away from her arms. She slipped the camisole off her arms also, and holding it very carefully against her chest, she wriggled into a long flannel nightgown. Only then, decently covered, did she divest herself of camisole, drawers and loosely laced stays. Down came the tightly knotted golden hair, all its pins put into a paua shell on the bureau. But even this, beautiful as it was, thick and shining and very straight, was not permitted freedom; Fee got her elbows up over her head and her hands behind her neck, and began to braid it swiftly. She turned then toward the bed, her breathing unconsciously suspended; but Paddy was asleep, so she heaved a gusty sigh of relief. Not that it wasn’t nice when Paddy was in the mood, for he was a shy, tender, considerate lover. But until Meggie was two or three years older it would be very hard to have more babies.

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