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.”
“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!”
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.
“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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”