Outside, [Abigail] was composed, independent, not very much liked. The girls at school said she was a weirdie, and there was no doubt she was an outsider. She looked like a stick in jeans and a tank top; so she would not wear them. If everyone else was wearing her hair over her face, Abigail scraped hers back. She didn’t have a boy friend, and when asked why she either looked enigmatic as though she knew twenty times more about boys than anyone else, or said she’d never met one who was half-way as interesting as her maths textbook. The girls said she was unreal, and she shrugged coolly. The really unreal thing was that she didn’t care in the least what they thought of her. She felt a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.
[Abigail’s] chief concern was that no one, not even her mother, should know what she was like inside. Because maybe to adults the turmoil of uncertainties, extravagant glooms, and sudden blisses, might present some kind of pattern or map, so that they could say, ‘Ah, so that’s the real Abigail, is it?’ The thought of such trespass made her stomach turn over. So she cultivated an expressionless face, a long piercing glance under her eyelashes that Grandmother called slippery. She carefully laid false trails until she herself sometimes could not find the way into her secret heart. Yet the older she grew the more she longed for someone to laugh at the false trails with, to share the secrets. What secrets? She didn’t yet know what they were herself.
The May holidays always made [Abigail] feel forlorn and restless. […] if her mother didn’t want her to help at the shop, she spent hours squashed into the corner of the brown armchair, which had once been a kindly bear and now was only a bear-shaped chair near a window which looked out on cranes and mast tops, on the deck of the Harbour Bridge and the pearly cusps of the Opera House rising through the gauzy murk like Aladdin’s palace. Mumping, her mother called it. But she was not doing that, or even thinking. Mostly she was just aware of something missing. When she was young she thought it was her father, for she had missed him miserably as well as hating him. […] But now she wasn’t a kid she knew that it wasn’t the absence of her father that caused the empty place inside. It was a part of her and she didn’t know what it was or why it was there.
“Oh, I know all you schoolgirls think you know every last word in the book about the relationships between a man and a woman; but love is a thing you have to experience before you know—” she hesitated, and then blurted out—“how powerful it can be.”
Her eyes turned instinctively to the corner of the wall where it met the street. There lurked Natalie's little furry girl, looking cold and forlorn.
“She looks the way I feel,” thought Abigail. But how did she feel? Not quite lost but almost. Baffled. A sense of too many strange ideas crowding around her, a feeling of helplessness and difficulty with which she could not come to terms. She thought, “Maybe they're right. Maybe there is such a thing as being too young and inexperienced to know your own mind.”
“What’s your name?”
Abigail scowled. “Quit having me on, whoever you are. That’s the name of a kids’ game.”
“I ken that well enough. But it’s my name. Beatrice May Bow, and I’m eleven years of age, though small for it, I know, because of the fever.” Suddenly she grabbed Abigail’s arm. “Dunna tell, I’m asking you. Dunna tell Granny where you come from, or I’m for it. She’ll say I’ve the Gift and I havena, and don’t want it, God knows, because I’m afeared of what it does.”
“Do you have a good or a bad feeling about him, poor bairn?”
Granny sighed. “I hae no clear feelings any more, Dovey. They're as mixed up as folk in fog.”
“But you've no doubt that this little one here is the Stranger?”
The two women spoke in whispers, but Abigail heard them, for the night was almost silent. There was no sound of traffic except a dray's wheels rolling like distant thunder over the cobbles at the docks. She could hear the waves breaking on the rocks of Dawes Point and Walsh Bay.
“Aye, when I first saw her I had a flash, clear as it was when I was a lass. Poor ill-favoured little yellow herring of a thing. But still, it came to me then, she was the Stranger that would save the Gift for the family.”
Abigail was so indignant at the description of herself that she almost opened her eyes.
“And then there was the gown, forebye. I swear, Granny, I almost fainted when I set eyes on it. The very pattern that we worked out between us!”
“And not a needle lifted to it yet,” said Granny.
The first thing was their kindness. How amazingly widespread it was. […] They had taken responsibility for her, nursed and clothed her. Someone had given up her bed, probably Beatie; no one had complained when she was snappish and rude about Dovey's best clothes, about the lack of sanitation; no one had condemned her unsympathetic attitude towards Gibbie.
“I'm not kind,” said Abigail with a sickish surprise. “Look how I went on with Mum when she said she wanted us to get together with Dad again. Look what I did to Dad when I was little, punched him on the nose and made it bleed. Maybe I’ve never been really kind in my life.” […] These Victorians lived in a dangerous world, where a whole family could be wiped out with typhoid fever or smallpox, where a soldier could get a hole in his head that you could put your fist in, where there were no pensions or free hospitals or penicillin or proper education for girls, or even poor boys, probably. Yet, in a way, it was a more human world than the one Abigail called her own.
“I wish I could stay awhile,” she thought, “and find out why all these things are. But I can't think about any of this till I get home. Getting home, that’s what I have to plan.”
“I've nothing to do with it!” cried Abigail. “I came here without wanting to and I want to go home. I've a life of my own, and I want to live it. My mother, I miss her, don't you understand?” she said chokily. She thought fiercely, “I won't cry, I won't.” She waited for a moment, and then said quietly, “I'm not your mysterious Stranger. I'm just someone who came into your life here in some way that's a riddle to me. But I have to go home, I don’t belong here. You must see that.”
“We canna let you go,” said Mrs. Tallisker. She had relinquished Abigail's hand and was sitting up against her pillows. Except for her sunken eyes she looked almost like her own dignified strong self again.
“But we canna let you go until you have done whatever it is the Stranger must do to preserve the Gift.” Dovey was distressed. “Oh, dear Abby, it may only be for a little while and then we will help you go to your own place. We do understand what you feel, that you long for your ain folk, but we canna let you go . . . you are our only hope, you see.”
In a way she felt as she had felt when her father went away and left her. Fright, anger and helplessness, the sense of being nobody who could make things happen. But then she had been only ten. Four years of schooling her face to be expressionless, her thoughts to be her private property, had not gone to waste.
After her first despair, she thought, “I won’t let them beat me. If that dress is hidden around the house I’lI find it. Or I'll bribe Beatie, or coax Judah, into telling me where it is.”
She had learnt a lot about herself in this new rough world. Her own thoughts and conclusions of just a month before filled her with embarrassed astonishment when she reviewed them.
“What a dummo I was! I knew as much about real life as poor little Natty.”
“I just want to go home, you know,” whispered Abigail.
“You're as restless as a robin, child,” said Mrs Tallisker. 'But 'twill not be long now.”
There was a great difference in Mrs. Tallisker. She had, all at once, become older and smaller. Only a few weeks before she had towered, or so it seemed, over Abigail. Now Abigail was almost as tall. Her skin had crumpled more deeply, more extensively, like a slowly withering flower. She could not work as hard as before, but sat more often in the parlour with Gibbie, knitting thick grey socks for Judah.
“Aye,” she said with her sweet smile, as Abigail secretly stared at her, "tis a fearful effort to give out the Power when it has decided to leave. If I could do what I did for you, child, you can give me a little of your time, inna that fair enough?”
“Yes, of course,” said Abigail, but in her heart she was grudging.
“’Tis here I live, do you see, in 1873, and my labour is here, and my own folk, and I'm thankful to God for both. So that's enough for me.”
“But men landing on the moon!” cried Abigail. “Don’t you think that's fantastic?”
“Damned foolishness, I call it,” [Judah] said, and flushed. “Your pardon, Abby, for a word Granny would thicken my ear for, but 'tis no more and no less. What good to man or beast is that bare lump of rock?”
“At least it makes the tides,” snapped Abigail, “and where would you be without them?”
He laughed. “True for you, but no man has to go there to press a lever or turn a wheel for that!”
Having failed to interest him in the future, she turned to the past, and asked him was he ever homesick for Orkney, as she knew Dovey was.
“Not I,” he said. “Why, 'tis the past, and dead and gone. I'm a New South Welshman now, and glad about it, aye, gey glad!” His eyes danced. “Ah, I'm glad to be alive, and at this minute, I tell ye!”
For an instant she remembered her mother's dark dewdrop eyes, as she said, “You don't know how powerful love can be,” and she thought how strange it was that love had made her both callous and tender. She did not care if this child died. Though she had never liked him, she had not wanted to deprive him of his life. But now, if his death meant that Judah lived, then she did not care a jot if he died. At the same time she did what would have made her skin creep a day or so before: she put her arms around his shivering, bony little body and held him comfortingly.
“Stay awhile with us,” begged Dovey the next day, “for you're one of the family, Abby, true!”
“No,” said Abigail. “I have to go home; you know that.”
Her green dress looked strange to her; it had been so long since she had seen it. She saw it was not very well made; it was not worthy of the lace-like crochet. Abigail put on the dress. It fitted more tightly across the chest. My figure’s coming at last, she thought. Inside she was cold and without feeling, like a volcano covered with ice.
Abigail saw ahead of her the lamp that lit the steep stairs to the alley which ran down to the playground. Beatie kicked angrily at the kerbstone. Her face was undecided, back to its crabbed urchin look.
“I know you hate me because I fell in love with your brother. Well, he doesn't love me, never did and never will. And I did save Dovey for him.”
“’Twas no more than what you were sent for,” said Beatie churlishly.
Abigail lost her temper. “Oh, you know everything, don't you? Let me tell you, you sulky little pig, you know nothing about love, that's one thing. You have to experience it to know how powerful it is.”
Here she stopped, dumbstruck, remembering who had said the same words to her.
In a flash the study vanished and Abigail was on a ship. The waves ran along the side, leaping and hissing. They were as grey as marble. The ship rolled and creaked. There was a drumming from up in the air, where the wet sails flickered out showers of salty drops. But she felt no movement. Muffled in his pea-jacket, a woolen cap on his bright head, Judah sat on a roll of canvas, mending some ship's gear, or so she thought. He had not got older as Beatie had.
“Judah!” she cried joyfully, but he did not look up. The pulley and rope in his fingers changed to a knife and a little wooden figure he was whittling. Somehow she knew it was herself. With an exclamation she could not hear, he tossed it overboard, where it turned into Abby herself, clad in Dovey's blouse and serge skirt, rising stiffly up and down in the waves like a statue or a ship's figurehead.
“Oh, Judah,” sobbed Abigail, “how could you?”
It was amazing, terrifying, that all signs of the family's life could have so completely vanished, as if they had never been. It was as if time were a vast black hole which swallowed up all trace of human woes and joys and small hopes and tendernesses. And the same thing would happen to her and her parents.
“Now then, start from the very beginning and tell me about everything. Did you go to Oslo University? Did you have any romances with glamorous Norwegians?”
“Oh, three or four.” Abigail smiled. “They're irresistible people. Not serious though.”
“You'll die being back in this old mundane place,” said Justine.
“No, not at all. Oh, it seems a bit hot and bright after those northern countries, but I'm going to finish my degree at Sydney University. I'll soon get used to it, and everything that happened in the last four years will seem like a fairy-tale.”
The Bible was a mighty volume. The green plush had hardly any pile left at all; the brass edges were black and bent. They had not been polished for many years.
“Justine had it at the top of the linen cupboard. It belonged to some old great-great aunt or such. She used to be headmistress at Fort Street School, you know the old building up near the Observatory that the National Trust has now?”
“So she made it, the little stirrer!” crowed Abigail. She beamed at Robert, who gaped at her.
'She wasn't any little stirrer; she was a perfect old tartar. Mother remembered her quite well; she was in an old ladies' home or something. Mother was petrified with terror of her, she said.”
“Old Miss Bow!” Abigail laughed marvelling. “Who would have guessed it? I guess that's how that kids’ game sprang up . . . terror lest Miss Beatie Bow would rise from the grave and give them all what for.”
“Natalie has something to do with this, hasn't she,” he pondered. “Because, after all, she's a Bow, and perhaps she has the Gift. And the crochet, because it came from the fingers of that Great-great-great-grandmother Alice from the Orkneys, was just enough to tip you over into the last century. She was right, you know: you were the Stranger of the Prophecy.”
“You would have liked Granny Tallisker,” said Abigail. She sighed. “You won't care for mine, she's even worse than she used to be.”
She was silent, thinking of that old woman, Alice Tallisker, her infinite goodness and strength, and how she had said that the link between Abigail and the Talliskers and Bows was no stronger than the link between that family and Abigail. The theory she had had when wandering The Rocks four years before - that time was a great black vortex down which everything disappeared - no longer made sense to her. She saw now that it was a great river, always moving, always changing, but with the same water flowing between its banks from source to sea.