Seldom had the sleepy little
They hurried to the little church, packing its pews, crowding outside its doors, eager and curious to see this strange, suddenly arranged marriage. If the bride's attire disappointed in its simplicity, both she and the bridesmaid made up in their own astonishing beauty. The bridegroom, everyone declared, left nothing to be desired; he was every woman's dream of the gallant lover. The men were impressed by the horse and the uniform, though they voted him something of a devil.
Caroline carefully avoided looking in the direction of Aunt Millicent's grave. She did not want to think of death; but, inside the chilly church, she could not avoid the memory of the sad little ceremony with which poor Aunt Millicent had been laid to rest. She laid a cold hand in Nick's, seeking reassurance and he answered with a smile. As she murmured her responses, she was conscious of only two warm touches in that melancholy scene: the firm clasp of Nick's hand and the burning ring of gold about her thigh. Who was this stranger in fine uniform to whom she pledged her life, her love and loyalty, till death. Only the strong hand clasping hers, the pale line of a scarred jaw assured her that he was the dashing lover of her troubled dreams. As for the clasping ring of gold, Gwen had advised her to remove it, then laughed and said, “well if you will not, your husband will.” She tried to put the thought out of her mind.
They were out in the sun again, husband and wife, and the gawping villagers crowding around ..... she smiling and lovely, he flashing a smile then frowning impatiently at the fuss and jostling.
“I'd be thinkin’,” it was said, “she’ll have her own troubles. He could be hard to humour.”
Gwendaline glowed with pleasure. Marsmain had, astutely chosen as his best man, a good-looking young subaltern guaranteed to keep her amused and she was receiving the personal attention that she invariably craved. The dreariness of the church, the absence of all the trappings considered essential did not dim her pleasure in being at the centre of such a romantic occasion. In truth she was relieved to see Caroline so well and finally settled for she had her own uncertain future to think of ..... but not now, thank heaven.
and his wife were clearly gratified. He was happy to be relieved from his
magisterial duties and to see another of the sisters so splendidly matched
without effort on his part, or expense in providing a marriage feast. He had
gone so far as to buy a new hat for his wife. Grand for once, in golden
feathers, she smiled on a world that seldom smiled on her. What joy to be able
to spice her tea-table chatter with references to “my niece, the Colonel's
lady” or “my nephew-in-law, the heir to Ballinmore”. To have another of those O’Shaughnessys
matched as satisfactorily was a relief beyond credibility. Her relief expressed
itself in the care with which she arranged the table for the wedding breakfast.
Forgetting frugality, she had ordered spiced meats, pies and pickles and piles
of glowing fruit. The flowers had come by canal all the way from
Replete from the groaning board, the “happy couple” drove away in a hired chaise. A local lad was engaged to ride the black stallion and he acted as an outrider, clearing the way of all impediment.
“We're going west,” Nick announced. “I have an errand with your aunt and uncle at Athenry.”
“But why, Nick?” Caroline asked, made nervous by the thought.
“That you shall see, my love. You need have no fear.”
He was the essence of solicitude throughout the journey. No bride could have been more tenderly treated, none more extravagantly admired. She had changed into her ultramarine habit and the many-plumed hat which she had worn on that memorable drive round St Stephen's Green. She felt exultant again, basking in the afternoon sun and in the warmth of her lover's appreciation. His hand on hers promised the cherishing he had sworn.
Towards dusk they stopped at a clean, simple inn. Marsmain ordered supper and accommodation for the night. Impressed by his fine appearance the innkeeper hastened to make ready for the Colonel and his lady. Presently a fire was crackling on the hearth. Standing erect by its glow, Nick seemed to dominate the small reception room. From where she sat, Caroline looked up to him. His face was so far away, it seemed, his dark eyes so inscrutable. Her face was pale and strangely timid. Glancing down he caught that look of temerity. He smiled but the flickering firelight cast strange shadows across his face, distorting the smile to a grimace. His voice seemed hollow in the bare room.
“Well, my wild Caroline, you're mine now ..... till death parts us,” he said.
She shivered slightly and dared not reply at once; and then a maidservant announced that supper was ready. Over the very good meal which included a trout fresh from the river, the atmosphere grew cordial, again. Their first tête-à-tête encounter had been over supper; now the spell of the savoury food induced the same easy camaraderie. They talked and laughed remembering their first meeting. They dallied a long time over their meal. Nick fed her titbits and laughed at her healthy interest in food. He sent the innkeeper scurrying in search of the finest wines his establishment could produce. They supped from the same goblet, held hands and kissed. About them the warm ring of candlelight shut them off together away from the world, from the past and the future.
Alone in the chilly bedroom of the inn, Caroline crouched by a meagre fire. She had retired early to the nuptial chamber. But it had not been prepared for their reception nor did their host know they were but newly wed. The room had an atmosphere of winter disuse. There were no flowers to greet the bride.
Caroline longed for lights and music. She comforted herself with whistling and humming a few bars from her favourite airs. The fire, starting into life produced flames that leapt and danced like living creatures.
Engrossed, she watched the patterns and pictures that flickered and faded. In the chimney a mournful wind howled fitfully. Shapeless, shadowy forms flitted on the edge of candlelight. The huge, solid, fumed-oak bed towered like a mimic fortress. She made no movement to undress, nor seek its dubious comfort.
She heard Nick’s tread in the corridor outside; the door opened. Seeing her still dressed in her habit and crouching by the fire, he glared angrily, but before she caught the impact, his expression changed. She rose to meet him as he strode forwards and took her in his arms. He held her tenderly, caressing her, covering her face and neck with eager kisses till he felt her glow in response.
“My wife. My darling wife at last,” he said hoarsely, “one flesh for ever. You are not frightened, my sweet.”
“Oh no, Nick, not frightened, “she replied. “Not of you. This room frightens me just a little ..... so full of shadows and strange sounds.”
“Then hurry darling and let us put out the light and then there will be no shadows ..... and no sounds but the beating of our hearts. I will make you warm. Come, let me tuck you into bed.”
She let him lift her on to the big bed; she might have been a doll in his hands. Gently, he removed her shoes and stockings, slid the frock of her habit from her shoulders, undid the long, heavy skirt. She luxuriated in his tender touch, let herself grow relaxed and lazy under his hands.
He kissed her on every newly bared stretch of skin, murmured endearments. He was like a man handling a wild filly and there is no man requires more tenderness and patience. That Nick Marsmain knew perfectly. This woman was his filly, and as mettlesome as any he had broken.
The nuptial night might have been perfect and forever remembered as such, but for one hitch. Caroline had quite forgotten the gold circlet about her thigh. In the candle light Nick caught its pale gleam on her satiny skin; his fingers touched the slim band. She felt them pause, explore, hesitate. She sat up abruptly, reaching out wildly to push Nick's hand away.
“Please!” she implored breathlessly, “do not take it off! Do not touch it!”
“But why? Is it some kind of charm? Surely you are not so superstitious, Caroline. You can't possibly wear that thing in bed.”
“I wear it all the time, Nick. I dare not remove it. I promised.”
“Promised whom, may I ask?” he enquired, impatiently.
“My brother, Fergal.”
“Ah, the elusive brother,” he said, coldly. “But you made another promise only this morning ..... to me. That promise is the more binding, and cancels all previous promises. What matters a promise to a traitor!”
She sprang from the bed and faced him, naked and innocent, her blue-green eyes bright with anger.
“I will not have my brother called traitor,” she said. “He is loyal to what he believes in ..... and very brave.”
“I do not question his bravery. He has the courage of the foolish. You admire him, I can see; but remember he is your husband’s enemy. Remember that, always. You love him, I can see. He means a great deal to you. Now tell me what this strange bauble means and why you treasure it so.”
His voice was calmer now. Perhaps he would understand. She might as well tell him the story; there must be no secrets between them.
Even as she told the story, its whole substance seemed to evaporate. It was a tale of wraiths long gone, of things that never were but in the imagination. The incredulity in his eyes emphasised the unlikelihood of the episode. He dismissed the whole thing with a shrug.
“A promise made to a spectre on a misty night, that is all. You are not bound by it. I will release you from this spell.”
“Even you, Nick, cannot break the old spell. It is of the blood. It would be like treading on the blood of the chieftain.”
“Whatever are you saying, my sweet, mad child?” he asked wearily, drawing her close to him.
She told him the story of the bloody stone and of what became of Millicent Picton who trod on the chieftain's blood. He laid his hands on her shoulders and looked in her eyes, compelling her to face him. It seemed he would shake sense into her.
“Let me hear no more of this superstitious nonsense, Caroline. No more, I say. These old mysteries have nothing to do with you and me. They savour of black magic.”
“Not black magic, Nick ..... stronger than feeble spells. We must respect the ancient mysteries ..... be careful not to stir the blood curse.”
His face was so pale that the scar glowed. His eyes were fearsome with rage or alarm.
“Enough, Caroline,” he shouted hoarsely, “enough, I say!”
She drew away from him, cowering. She was actually frightened of him. Really this was an absurd quarrel and he was handling it badly. He strove to command his emotions. Reason was no use, if he could have tried it; instead, he wheedled:
“Oh my darling Caroline, do not let us quarrel on out wedding night. Come to my arms, my love. I should not have spoken so sharply. I am sorry. Let me make you happy again.”
He held out his arms to her, his eyes pleading. He touched her gently, drew her to him, held her within the strong clasp of his arms, soothed her with caresses till she was submissive and at rest. His triumph would have been complete if she had wept on his shoulder, but this she did not do. He had never seen her weep. Perhaps she never wept. She was a strange, brave girl. He did not want tears really, but the fierce loving she could give and now he set himself to rouse her desire. She lay naked on the bed, responding to his caress. She was perfect. Only the gleam of gold on her thigh tormented him.
“Caroline, my darling, let me take it off,” he enticed, “just for our wedding night.”
She let him remove the band, smiling at his insistence. He held it against her throat.
“What a fine necklet it would make,” he suggested playfully. “Perhaps that is what it was intended for in the first place. Let me try it on.”
She sat up and allowed him to slip the band about her throat. Then he led her to the mirror that she might admire herself. He stood behind her, his hand on the nape of her neck under her flowing hair. The frail band shone palely in the candlelight. Did she imagine that it shrank, tightening about her throat? She could not be sure. He watched her face pale and her eyes widen with sudden panic. In the mirror their eyes met, hers fearful, his triumphant. Then he smiled and whirled her round to face him in the flesh. Then he bore her to the marriage bed, dowsing the candles as he passed.
“The world did not come to an end when you broke that childish promise,” he said. “In fact it is only beginning.”