The ninth and final Patricia Carlon mystery to be published by Soho
- Soho Press, Incorporated
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)
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Who Are You, Linda Condrick?
By Patricia Carlon
SOHO A little curl of flame licked backwards round the blackened bole of a tree, touching the runnels of dried sap that had oozed from it in past agony. The curl faded and died, to be renewed again in the fallen tree branches below. The branches twisted, crackling, then were still as another curl of flame followed the first, was lost and followed by a third and then the belching column of grey smoke and orange-red flame of the main body of fire.
Copyright © 1962 Patricia Carlon.
All rights reserved.
The men on the ridge stood silent, watching, as the rising south wind carried the flames back over the way it had come, to flare for a little and die in the dead blackness it had created in its onslaught of the past day and night.
Someone among the group of scarecrow-like, face-blackened men raised a faint cheer, then coughed as smoke billowed back. Out of the grey-blue cloud of it a voice said, "that's done it". No one answered. They were all too tired, had been too tensed and anxious for too long. Now with the south wind came abrupt relaxation, too sharp, too sudden, so that one or two of the black-streaked, hessian-draped figures began to shiver.
Gregory Forst's red-rimmed grey eyes saw the shiver running down the draggled ranks. He was about to speak, then remained silent as out of the smouldering fire dashed a grey-furred body with a runnel of orange fire down the back of the grey. The kangaroo cleared the margin of fire in three crazed leaps, and wasamong the farther untouched grass, heading for the valley, when somewhere in the background a rifle cracked. The animal gave one tremendous leap upwards, then fell back. Orange-red flame touched out in the grass, flared and went crazily dancing outwards and forwards, doubling and trebling its strength as it went.
Someone cursed and the ragged line moved. Wetted hessian thumped and thumped again round the margin of fire, beating it into the centre, stilling it.
Gregory stood looking down at the animal's body, hardly conscious of his cousin-in-law's shrill voice in his ear, "That'll be happening over and over and it'll take just one fire to start down there and the wind changing on us again and then ..."
Gregory looked up, into the round face that held a comically boyish look with its blackened streaks where sweat had run through smuts and dried in the heat of flame. Billy McGuire's sun-bleached, greying hair was blackened too, the usually colourless strip of hair on his jutting brows a surprising point of darkness. Like most of them he had damp hessian draped over his shoulders, damp hessian round his waist. Beneath the absurd skirts it formed, Billy's stick-thin legs finished in huge boots. He looked utterly ridiculous. They all did. Gregory's gaze ran over them, and his mouth twitched. It was always like this, he thought in sudden content. The hard fighting, and the fear and the tension and sometimes the pain when men were caught and burned; then the relaxing, the upsurge of talk, the cigarettes passed roundas though they hadn't had enough of smoke!the looking at one another, and the smiles.
He started to laugh. The sound was taken up. Gazes flicked sideways to companion figures. The laughter grew, above pointed comments on each other's appearance.
Gregory said suddenly, patiently, "Of course there'll be a watch kept, Bill. The fire will go on smouldering for days yet."
Alone of the valley people he called his cousin-in-law Billinwardly objecting to the addition to the name that tried to make of the fading, middle-aged man the eternal boy. Yet Billy McGuire was a child in some things. Gregory's own patient tone, his explanation where none was due was admission of that. He knew it, frowning at the thought, suddenly impatient both with himself and the man at his side who had fought bushfires every summer, yet must babble as though this were his first.
He was going to say something else when Hudson Forst's voice cracked out further down the line of men. He was standing looking down into the valley, apparently not conscious of his cousin, or of his sister's husband, Billy McGuire.
"Pretty, isn't it?"
His voice touched them all. The tired group turned, slightly or fully as fancy took them, following his gaze. The sun was beginning to wester in red and orange, streaked through with darkened cloud, as though the red, orange and black of the ridge was reflected in the sky, but the light it cast over Leumeah Valley was tawny-gold. Down there in the dusty green of mid-summer things stood out starkly in that tawny-gold light. Sheep that the men knew were dirty grey at close quarters took on an unreal look of white, perfect creatures from story books. Trees were etched in perfection, their faults and blemishes hidden, and the billabong with its drift of weeping willows was silver grey, not mud-choked as it was when you stood beside it.
The red roof of the main two-storeyed homestead was softened to dusky rose, and away beyond it the roofs of the two smaller homesteads were verdant green, while the iron water tanks and the outbuildings were stark white and silver grey.
They stood there, silent, smoking, watching, barely noticing the dust-covered station wagon that had come up the last stretch of the track to a standstill.
"Pretty, isn't it?" the words held them all.
Rowena Searle heard the words as she jumped from the station wagon. She was instantly still, small hands on small-boned hips, her face, with its pointed chin and dark eyes, turning towards the valley, too. She echoed, without turning her head, "Pretty, isn't it?"
The words were echoed again. Mockingly. So that Rowena's dark-brown hair flicked round her face with the sharpness of her turn.
Linda Condrick was almost standing still. But her gaze was on the scarecrow figures of the men, not on the valley. Tall, making the sixteen-year-old at her side appear almost doll-like beside her, she was wearing the crumpled linen slacks and shirt she had worn since she had got up at three a.m. when the moonlight had been a pale-washed reflection of the advancing fire on the ridge.
Darkso dark that beside Rowena her straight dark hair appeared blue-black and her skin, beside Rowena's golden tan, a shade darker even than olive, she was frowning. The straight, brushed-back hair emphasised the broad forehead and high cheek-bones, the too wide mouth. She looked almost sullen. Then abruptly she smiled. Linda's smile always startled strangers. Rowena remembered how Gregory had said once, "You're two people, Linda," as though he had suddenly discovered part of her fascination for him. And he had been right. Smiling, Linda's mouth was curved in near beauty to show perfect teeth. Her straight dark brows arched up and the grey eyes became brilliant, the dark-ringed grey irises fully revealed in all their fascinating oddness.
Linda was full of surprises. As now. As she stood looking at the group of men and repeating mockingly, "Pretty, isn't it?" Her gaze still on them she added, "They don't see the ridge any more. Only the valley. I wonder how many of them have turned their backs on past fires, past ruins, past hopes and stared ahead. Is that a bush man's trait, I wonder? To be able to turn instantly away from disaster and only face ahead or ..."
Then abruptly her smile flashed out. "Don't goggle, Rowena. It doesn't suit you. Do you think they need still more tea? A bath would be more like it, don't you think? Several baths and ..."
Gregory had turned and was striding down towards them. Linda didn't go to meet him. Just waited. Confident, almost arrogant, Rowena reflected. As confidently, as arrogantly as she had waited, after old Mrs. Forst's death, for Gregory to slip the big emerald on her finger and ask her to be mistress of the Valley.
Gregory's blackened face was split into a smile. Out of the black his red-rimmed eyes had a look only for the girl who waited so calmly, so arrogantly. But just short of her he stopped, laughed huskily as though the smoke was still deep in his throat and said, "I'm filthy, so I shan't come closer. It's licked. For the moment." He looked again towards the valley. "The wind saved us. By not being there at first and then coming over the valley from the south." He asked, "Are you very tired? You went down and rested, didn't you, as I told you to?"
"Yes," the answer came with surprising impatience. Then she smiled, "Yes, I went. Straight after you told me. I've been down at the house ever since. Did you need me?"
"No, Diana coped." His gaze turned again, as though seeking Hudson's sister, Billy's wife, in that crowd of scarecrow figures. "There wasn't any emergency anyway. We've come off lightly this time." His gaze had picked out the woman's figure now and satisfied he nodded, but lifted his voice to call, "Hudmake sure everyone's here, will you?"
That was necessary. Rowena always stood tense through those roll-calls after a fire like this, when black-streaked scarecrow figures were counted and names were called and answered in hoarse, smoke-dulled voices.
Linda, of course, had never experienced these summer nightmares; never felt the tension, the fear, the sudden rush of sickness in a tensed throat when a voice was slow in answering; never experienced the worse sickness of having a voice, a friend's voice, not answering at all. So perhaps it wasn't surprising she moved slightly away to light a cigarette, apparently absorbed in her view of the valley and not in the roll-call, the counting, the answering, behind her.
Rowena laughed aloud when Hudson's smoke-cracked voice came across, "all here." That was always the same, too. The sudden relief from that nerve-racking tension, the sudden laughter, the abrupt discussion of plans.
Gregory said, "Linda, most of the men will be turning straight home." His gaze went to the line of trucks below them, all pointed towards the valley, all ready to flee across it to the east to the town of Fobb's Creek, carrying the firefighters away in the event of engulfing fire breaking through. "But some had better stay down with us, I think. We can use the shearer's sheds...."
"Of course. It won't take long to put down mattresses and there's plenty to eat."
It was the mistress of the house speaking, Rowena reflected. Not the proposed mistress. But the mistress already, though the wedding wasn't to be for a whole month. There was no trace of the stranger who had come to the valley only four months ago in that confident, "Of course." She might have lived there as long as Rowena herself.
Gregory was looking at herthe stranger, the new-comer, the confident mistresswith an expression that gave no hint he might know how much she was hated by others. He asked with a gentleness that came strangely through the hoarseness of smoke-riddled tones, "You're sure you rested."
"Yes," she said.
And that was a lie, Rowena thought, as she and Linda went back to the station wagon. Linda hadn't rested at all. And surely it wasn't tiredness that had brought that tenseness, that tautness, that restlessness to Linda that afternoon after her abrupt return from the ridge. Usually slow-voiced, almost too sparing of speech, she had talked fast, furiously, almost unceasingly, and often she had gone to the kitchen doorway to stare upwards at the ridge as though it held for her some dreadful fascination of fear.
The men, released from strain for this present moment, were acting like schoolboys. The women watched tolerantly, but alertly. So did Gregorya different figure nowclean-faced, though still red-rimmed of eyeswith his lean length in clean slacks and white shirt, with his hair washed back to its usual brown. He watched as well, because no one could afford to get drunk, or even half-way to it, tonight. At any minute the alarm might come again and they would have to return to the ridge and a man not sure of his feet, a man too slow of movement, a man with befuddled wits was a danger to himself and to everyone else in the fickle flare and turn of a bushfire. Some of them had seen and all of them had heard, of men who had been slow-witted or slow-footed and found themselves trapped suddenly in a circle of blazing fire, with no way through.
There was to be none of that on the ridge; no disaster for the valley or town if it could be helped. So they watched. Tolerantly, but alertly, and only once had a bottle and glass to be moved out of reach. Out of Billy McGuire's reach. It would be Billy of course, Rowena reflected in nose-wrinkling disgust, then met the gazethe quick, shame-faced glance round the roomof Diana McGuire, who was obviously looking to see who had noticed her cousin's calm removal of her husband's glass.
Rowena caught the shame-faced glance and tried a reassuring smile that she realised must have been a failure, because Diana's tired face flushed furiously. A hand reached up nervously to smooth the already too smooth, scraped-back brown hair that finished in a tight little knot at the back of her head. As usual Diana was wearing a washed-out cotton frock. Rowena often wondered where that seemingly inexhaustible supply of washed-our cottons came from. There must be dozens of them in the smaller house at the foot of the ridge, at the northern end of valley, because Rowena never remembered seeing her, except at Hudson's wedding and old Mrs. Forst's funeral, in anything but those washed-out cottons, or faded riding clothes.
Diana crossed to her abruptly, "Where's Wilma?" though she must have known that her daughter was in the kitchen. The big living room led into it and the doors were wide open. Rowena could see Wilma's brown head bent as she worked at slicing bread. She could see, too, the bright, brittle gold of Marcia Forst's hair. Hudson's wife had elected to go home to the other small homestead in the valley and change and come back to this party. She was wearing tight tangerine slacks and a green shirt. Her nails and her mouth would be tangerine, too, Rowena knew. If there was a wrong time for dressing up to the heights of absurdity Marcia would be fated to find it. She was the direct contrast to Diana, which perhaps was why the two women so cordially disliked one another.
Diana was staring into vacancy, her pale mouth slightly open, as though she was groping desperately for something else to say to the girl at her side, when Mrs. Leeming came through from the kitchen. The little sparrow-like figure was as neat as ever, as though there had been no bushfire, no getting out of bed before dawn, no constant invasion of her kitchen, no journey to the ridge with a man's felt hat covering her neat grey hair and a big black apron over her starched white one.
Her little wrinkled hands were folded over the white apron now, her wrinkled cherry of a mouth folded in over toothless gums. She asked, her small shiny eyes on Gregory Forst, "I just wanted to know what I'd better be doing about that tucker for the swaggie. Didn't leave him up on the ridge, did you?"
Gregory frowned. "What swaggie?"
Linda said, "I sent him up the ridge this morning to help out. He came round ... cadging," her voice flicked her contempt, her disgust of a swaggie's life, "and the Huskin brothers had just called in on their truck. I told him to get up to the ridge and help out and when he came down again there'd be something for him. Not before."
There seemed a sudden deepening of the lines round the man's red-rimmed eyes as he stared blankly.
Hudson's laugh from across the room was mockery, directed at Linda.
"And as soon as you turned your back he'd have nicked out of sight. You should have known that. He's probably ten miles down the track by this."
Linda said coolly, "He didn't. Because I saw the truck start off for the ridge."
Marcia had come to the communicating doorway to listen, leaning there, one handtangerine-tipped, Rowena noticed in absurd satisfaction that her guess had been righton the doorpost. Her small petulant mouth curved in laughter. "And at the foot of the ridge he'd have hopped out, you can bet, claiming falling arches or housemaid's knee! Hud's right. You should have known better."
Linda was still untouched by their mockery, their scorn of her innocence. Rowena, watching the smoothly expressionless dark face, suddenly wondered if Linda ever really felt, in biting keenness, the dislike of this family she was entering. She went on standing there smoking gracefully, seemingly unmoved as Gregory said, "I'll ring Huskin and make sure."
Excerpted from Who Are You, Linda Condrick? by Patricia Carlon. Copyright © 1962 by Patricia Carlon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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