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–1917 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 we - 22


“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.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.had gone to Meggie, and held her arms.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.”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.”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.”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.”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.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.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.”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 cruel! Why did He have to take both of them?”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.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.”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.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.”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!”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!”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.”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.”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.”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.”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.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?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.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.”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.”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.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.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.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.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.”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?”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.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…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…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.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.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.went to see Fee, where she sat at the escritoire staring mutely down at her hands. 1 ... 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 ... 56 2014-07-19 18:44
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