Authors: Colleen McCullough
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General, #Sagas
Not since The Thorn Birds has Colleen McCullough written a novel of such broad appeal about a family and the Australian experience as
At its center is Alexander Kinross, remembered as a young man in his native Scotland only as a shiftless boilermaker’s apprentice and a godless rebel. But when, years later, he writes from Australia to summon his bride, his Scottish relatives quickly realize that he has made a fortune in the gold fields and is now a man to be reckoned with.
Arriving in Sydney after a difficult voyage, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Drummond meets her husband-to-be and discovers to her dismay that he frightens and repels her. Offered no choice, she marries him and is whisked at once across a wild, uninhabited countryside to Alexander’s own town, named Kinross after himself. In the crags above it lies the world's richest gold mine.
Isolated in Alexander’s great house, with no company save Chinese servants, Elizabeth finds that the intimacies of marriage do not prompt her husband to enlighten her about his past life — or even his present one. She has no idea that he still has a mistress, the sensual, tough, outspoken Ruby Costevan, whom Alexander has established in his town, nor that he has also made Ruby a partner in his company, rapidly expanding its interests far beyond gold. Ruby has a son, Lee, whose father is the head of the beleaguered Chinese community; the boy becomes dear to Alexander, who fosters his education as a gentleman.
Captured by the very different natures of Elizabeth and Ruby, Alexander resolves to have both of them. Why should he not? He has the fabled “Midas Touch” — a combination of curiosity, boldness and intelligence that he applies to every situation, and which fails him only when it comes to these two women.
Although Ruby loves Alexander desperately, Elizabeth does not. Elizabeth bears him two daughters: the brilliant Nell, so much like her father; and the beautiful, haunting Anna, who is to present her father with a torment out of which for once he cannot buy his way. Thwarted in his desire for a son, Alexander turns to Ruby's boy as a possible heir to his empire, unaware that by keeping Lee with him, he is courting disaster.
The stories of the lives of Alexander, Elizabeth and Ruby are intermingled with those of a rich cast of characters, and, after many twists and turns, come to a stunning and shocking climax. Like The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough’s new novel is at once a love story and a family saga, replete with tragedy, pathos, history and passion. As few other novelists can, she conveys a sense of place: the desperate need of her characters, men and women, rootless in a strange land, to create new beginnings.
“YOUR COUSIN Alexander has written for a wife,” said James Drummond, looking up from a sheet of paper.
The summons to see her father in the front parlor had fallen on Elizabeth like a blow; such formality meant a lecture for transgression, followed by a punishment appropriate for the offense. Well, she knew what she had done—over-salted this morning’s porridge—and knew too what her punishment was bound to be—to eat un salted porridge for the rest of the year. Father was careful with his money, he’d not spend it on a grain more salt than he had to.
So, hands behind her back, Elizabeth stood in front of the shabby wing chair, her mouth dropped open at this amazing news.
“He asks for Jean, which is daft—does he think time stands still?” James brandished the letter indignantly, then transferred his gaze from it to this youngest child, light from the window pouring over her while he sat concealed by shadows. “You’re made like any other female, so it will have to be you.”
“Are you deaf, girl? Aye, you. Who else is there?”
“But Father! If he asks for Jean, he’ll not want me.”
“Any respectable, decently brought-up young woman will do, judging by the state of affairs in the place he writes from.”
“Where does he write from?” she asked, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to read the letter.
“New South Wales.” James grunted, a satisfied sound. “It seems your cousin Alexander has done well for himself—made a wee fortune on the goldfields.” His brow wrinkled. “Or,” he temporized, “at least has made enough to afford a wife.”
Her first shock was dissipating, to be replaced by dismay. “Wouldn’t it be simpler for him to find a wife there, Father?”
“In New South Wales? It’s naught but harlots, ex-convicts and English snobs when it comes to women, he says. Nay, he saw Jeannie when he was last home, and took a strong fancy to her. Asked for her hand then. I refused—well, why would I have taken a shiftless boilermaker’s apprentice living in the Glasgow stews for Jeannie, and her barely sixteen? Your age, girl. That’s why I’m sure you’ll do for him—he likes them young. What he’s after is a Scots wife whose virtue is above reproach, whose blood he shares and can trust. That’s what he says, at any rate.” James Drummond rose to his feet, brushed past his daughter and marched into the kitchen. “Make me some tea.”
Out came the whisky bottle while Elizabeth threw tea leaves into the warmed pot and poured boiling water on top of them. Father was a presbyter—an elder of the kirk—so was not a drinker, let alone a drunkard. If he poured a dollop of whisky into his teacup, it was only upon the receipt of splendid news, like the birth of a grandson. Yet why was this such splendid news? What would he do, with no daughter to look after him?
What was really in that letter? Perhaps, thought Elizabeth, accelerating the steeping of the tea by stirring it with a spoon, the whisky would provide some answers. Father when slightly befuddled was actually talkative. He might betray its secrets.
“Does my cousin Alexander have anything else to say?” she ventured as soon as the first cup was down and the second poured.
“Not very much. He’s no fonder of words than any other of the Drummond ilk.” Came a snort. “Drummond, indeed! It’s not his name anymore, if you can believe that. He changed it to Kinross when he was in America. So you won’t be Mrs. Alexander Drummond, you’ll be Mrs. Alexander Kinross.”
It did not occur to Elizabeth that she might dispute this arbitrary decision about her destiny, either at that moment or much later, when enough time had passed to see the thing clearly. The very thought of disobeying Father in such an important matter was more terrifying than anything she could imagine except a scolding from the Reverend Dr. Murray. Not that Elizabeth Drummond lacked courage or spirit; more that, as the motherless youngest, she had spent all her little life being tyrannized by two terrible old men, her father and his minister of religion.
“Kinross is the name of our town and county, not the name of a clan,” she said.
“I daresay he had his reasons for changing,” said James with unusual tolerance, sipping at his second tipple.
“Some sort of crime, Father?”
“I doubt that, or he’d not be so open now. Alexander was always head-strong, always too big for his boots. Your uncle Duncan tried, but couldn’t manage him.” James heaved a huge, happy sigh. “Alastair and Mary can move in with me. They’ll come into a tidy sum when I’m six feet under.”
“A tidy sum?”
“Aye. Your husband-to-be has sent a bank draft to cover the cost of sending you out to New South Wales. A thousand pounds.”
She gaped. “A thousand pounds?”
“You heard me. But don’t get your head turned around, girl. You can have twenty pounds to fill your glory box and five for your wedding finery. He says you’re to be sent first-class and with a maid—well, I’ll not countenance such extravagance! Och, awful! First thing tomorrow I’ll write to the Edinburgh and Glasgow newspapers to post an advertisement.” Down came his spiky sandy lashes, a sign of deep thought. “What I want is a respectable married couple belonging to the kirk who are planning to emigrate to New South Wales. If they’re willing to take you along, I’ll pay them fifty pounds.” His lids lifted to reveal his bright blue eyes. “They’ll grab at it. And I’ll put nine hundred and twenty-five pounds in my purse. A tidy sum.”
“But will Alastair and Mary be willing to move in, Father?”
“If they’re not, I’ll leave my tidy sum to Robbie and Bella or Angus and Ophelia,” said James Drummond smugly.
Having served him two thick bacon sandwiches for his Sunday supper, Elizabeth threw her plaid around her shoulders and escaped on the pretext that she’d better see if the cow had come home.
THE HOUSE wherein James Drummond had brought up his large family lay on the outskirts of Kinross, a village dignified with the status of market-town because it was the capital of Kinross County. At twelve by ten miles, Kinross was the second-smallest county in Scotland, but made up for its lack of size by some slight degree of prosperity.
The woollen mill, the two flour mills and the brewery were belching black smoke, for no mill owner let his boilers go out just because it was a Sunday; cheaper than stoking from scratch on Mondays. There was sufficient coal in the southern part of the county to permit of these modest local industries, and thanks to them James Drummond had not suffered the fate of so many Scotsmen, forced to leave their native land in order to find work and live, or else subsist in the squalor of a reeking city slum. Like his elder brother, Duncan, who was Alexander’s father, James had worked his fifty-five years at the woollen mill, turning out lengths of checkered cloth for the Sassenachs after the Queen had brought tartan into fashion.
The strong Scottish winds blew the stack-smoke away like charcoal under an artist’s thumb and opened the pale blue vault to near-infinity. In the distance were the Ochils and the Lomonds, purple with autumn heather, high wild mountains where crofter’s cottages swung decayed doors on nothing, where soon the absentee landlords would come to shoot deer, fish the lochs. Of scant concern to Kinross County, in itself a fertile plain replete with cattle, horses, sheep. The cattle were destined to become the finest London roast beef, the horses were brood mares for saddle and carriage horses, the sheep produced wool for the tartan mill and mutton for local tables. There were crops too, for the mossy soil had been extensively drained fifty years ago.
In front of Kinross town was Loch Leven, a broad, ruffled mere of that steely blue peculiar to the Scottish lochs, fed by translucent amber peat streams. Elizabeth stood on the shore only yards from the house (she knew better than to disappear from sight of it) and looked across the loch to the verdant flatlands that lay between it and the Firth of Forth. Sometimes, if the wind blew from the east, she could smell the cold, fishy depths of the North Sea, but today the wind blew off the mountains, redolent with the tang of moldering leaves. On Lochleven Isle a castle reared, the one in which Mary Queen of Scots had been imprisoned for almost a year. What must it have been like, to be both sovereign and captive? A woman trying to rule a land of fierce, outspoken men? But she had tried to bring back the Roman faith, and Elizabeth Drummond was too carefully reared a Presbyterian to think well of her for that.
I AM GOING to a place called New South Wales to marry a man I have never met, she thought. A man who asked for my sister, not for me. I am caught in a web of my father’s making. What if, when I arrive, this Alexander Kinross doesn’t like me? Surely, if he is an honorable man, he will send me home again! And he must be honorable, else he would not have sent for a Drummond bride. But I have read that these rude colonies so far from home do indeed suffer a scarcity of suitable wives, so I suppose he will marry me. Dear God in Heaven, make him like me! Make me like him!
SHE HAD GONE to Dr. Murray’s school for two years, long enough to learn to read and write, and she was well, if narrowly, read; writing was more difficult, since James refused to spend money on paper for silly girls to despoil. But provided she kept the house spotlessly clean, cooked her father’s meals to his liking, didn’t spend any money, or hobnob with other, equally silly girls, Elizabeth was free to read whatever books she could find. She had two sources: the texts in the library of Dr. Murray’s manse and the drearily respectable novels that circulated among the feminine members of his massive congregation. No surprise, then, that she was more informed about theology than geology, and circumstance than romance.