CAROLINE

 

By

 

UNA LAVERY

 

CHAPTER 1

 

“Caroline!”

The well-bred voice shrilled and died, frail as a seagull's cry on the salty air. Among the lingering watchers on the rough quay hardly a head turned. The girl made no sign of hearing. Uncloaked and unhooded, she stood apart. Except for the lift and fall of her wind-blown auburn hair, she might have been a figure-head on a petrified ship. Her blue-green eyes followed the cutter as it tacked delicately out of the narrow estuary into the wide waters of Galway Bay. Only a close observer would have noticed the tears streaming down her pale cheeks to smudge the bosom of her blue dress. Only finger-touch could confirm the quality of the fading silk. Only the girl's unconscious grace set her apart from the crude toilers who had hurried down to gape at the strange craft looming out of a September haze to pick up its one passenger and steal swiftly away.

The peasants and fishermen who occupied the huddle of low, thatched cottages above the quay were not totally unfamiliar with such incursions. They asked no questions. What their native aristocracy did was not for them to query. They commemorated the Wild Geese in song and story. They knew that, in past times, their departed chieftains had often made secret, flying visits to their homes, disappearing like ghosts at cockcrow. It was hard to be sure if they came in fact or in phantom, so many had died in the wars of Europe; their sons and grandsons dispersed and forgot their roots; the ties between Ireland and Europe had grown extremely tenuous. But Europe was looming again out of the mists of history. There were rumours of a French fleet getting ready to sail. Oh devil wind that had dispersed so many fleets! What devil held his wind for the latter days of 1796? What devil fleet had Napoleon in preparation? The old days of French kings and Irish chieftains were over. A century had outworn the strictures of the Penal Laws. The times were mending. Maybe better let well enough alone. Among the poor of the west there was little enthusiasm for a foreign-aided rising. As well, maybe, if that ship were a phantom.

The young man who boarded the cutter seemed real enough. But again, he could have been the ghost of Turlough O'Shaughnessy, the Chevalier d'France; or of Phelim who fought with the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy, or of Conor, whom James II made earl and who had fled to France after the fall of Limerick in 1691 with the defeated Wild Geese. More likely, some said, he would be Turlough's son, the French-woman's child for he had a foreign cast of countenance. For certain the horse he had ridden was real. They recognised Drynan's black stallion, unbeaten at the point-to-points. The French ship was real too, and a dandy of a ship at that. It was a long time since a French ship had put in at Carraigeel and none of the appraising fishermen's eyes had seen a vessel so swift and manoeuvrable. On its own, it was good for a night's talking by the peat fires, or a month of nights. The women could pick their eyes out spinning and sprigging by flickering rushlight; men needed a horse or a ship or a rumour of war to pass the nights away.

At the mouth of the estuary the cutter's sails caught the wind of the open bay. Like a seagull, it spread its wings, rounded the headland and sped west to the open Atlantic. It would follow the coast-line as far as possible, then speed south-east to France, making its sprint by night, veering and tacking in the Channel, always alert for lurking English ships.

“Caroline!”

Millicent Picton's voice grew shriller with impatience. She did not want to be here, or seen here. As far as Caroline was concerned her call might have been just another gull cry. The cutter was out of sight, but her mind's eye followed, tracing the indelible line of her family's voyages. Those men of action who had, perhaps, been only dreamers. Had their purpose in life been simply to voyage hopefully? Her heart followed the slim, erect figure on deck. From the sea he came and into the mists on the sea he vanished. The sea was her own environment, for she had drawn first breath on a French ship speeding to just such a secret anchorage. The pulse and movement of the sea were as natural to her as the stolid security of Dunalla's grim keep. Her ancestors had tracked a fateful, restless line in the rough seas of Irish history.

Millicent Picton fidgeted, rocking the round car and unsettling the pony. Owen busied himself with the reins, glad to have something to do other than converse with the lady. She was in a great state, wasn't she, to get back to Dunalla before night fell. Didn't she see the wraith of a harvest moon that would soon shine full? Or was she haunted by other wraiths? Owen knew of a few, and the fact that he knew disturbed Millicent. This menial bore the clan name O'Shaughnessy. Amadhan! She would not say the Irish word for fool in Owen's hearing, nor any word in the Irish. The Irish language was dead, or should be, after the Penal Laws.

“Caroline!” she called desperately.

The last gapers on the quay glanced momentarily at the strange woman in the little round car, and went on with their murmured conversation as though she were of no consequence. The peasants around her own home in the King's County would have touched their forelocks to her, daughter of a magistrate and colonel of yeomanry. In this wilderness nobody recognized her; none knew her except the few round Dunalla. Strange their ways were to her, and stranger still the ways of their chieftains and their descendants. She could not understand why Fergal came. He had not come for his father's burial. There was nothing left of what might have been his heritage, unless Dunalla keep counted. He showed no inclination to take the king's writ or lay claim to his great-grandfather's earldom. If it had ever been registered. Half French aristocrat, he had chosen to serve in the army of the French Republic and thus continue the tradition of outlawry in his own land. She hoped he had gone for good. He had a bad influence over Caroline.

The girl needed a firm hand to guide her. She, Millicent Picton, must take that hand: groom and tutor and steer her into a secure, sensible marriage. She smiled thinking how well she had done for Lucinda; but Lucinda had been an amenable girl. It could be that Gwendaline was heading for an even more brilliant marriage; there were snatches of gossip about her relationship with Lord Moreton, a most eligible bachelor; and about other relationships, too many, for Gwen thrived in the bright light of viceregal Dublin. She had done her best for Gwen, but the girl was too flighty to be tamed. Millicent sighed deeply. Caroline was going to be a handful.

The waterfront was deserted now and gulls drifted down in the foolish hope of finding a few crumbs dropped by the poor watchers. Even the spalpeen who had come to take Drynan's stallion back to Athenry, had moved from his vantage point on the road beyond the village. Mounting his own shaggy beast, he looped the stallion's leading rein about his wrist and urged the two horses to a canter. Millicent did not notice him halt on the brow of the hill and scan the bay for a last glimpse of sail.

She did not see him lower his gaze to the solitary figure on the quay. The very thought that an itinerant labourer should stare at an earl's daughter unabashed would have been preposterous. Poet they said, but what did they know of poetry? Hedge schoolmaster, they said; well maybe he could count to ten. Some ruffian picked up by Drynan to help with the horses. Drynan's home at Moybranach near Athenry was the harbourage of wanderers and wayfarers of varying repute. With Drynan so easy-going and Rose O'Shaughnessy lacking self-respect, all itinerants made themselves at home in Moybranach.

“Fool!” she snapped as Owen let the reins slip, but Owen was not minding what she called him.

Owen O'Shaughnessy's thoughts were as restless as the pony, and harder to rein. Poor and proud as he was, they were virtually his only private possessions. On this darkling September evening of 1796 they were sombre. He thought of the deserted keep of Dunalla, of Turlough O'Shaughnessy, chieftain and outlaw, who had escaped death in war and captivity in peace. What madness had been in him to gamble his life away in foreign battles, his lands in devil's card games, his cunning in wine and wool smuggling ..... leaguing with his enemy, Joe Ferriter, devil take all. Losing his wife and his wits, drinking and riding wild in the night to that terrible fall ..... horse, neck broken, chieftain broken and dying. Fergal, who should have been the young chieftain, but with the French blood in him. And betraying even his French blood: listing in the army of the French Republic, serving those who brought down the old regime.

Was it for his Irish heritage? Why had Fergal come at such risk? There was something astir in Ireland that Owen could not understand. But how could he understand, he who was only poor Owen, the amadhan? The fool, she called him, that stranger fidgeting and rocking the round car, getting red in the face and she cold under that mountain of wraps.

Cold she had been, and getting colder, ever since the night Turlough had taken his life and freedom in his hands and held a ball at Dunalla. That was the night he had announced his betrothal to HERSELF'S young sister. And the next day they were gone, speeding to France in a slim sailing ship. Herself left desolate after pursuing Turlough all her life, you might say, even before he married the first wife, Fergal's French mother. They said she put the “eye” on the Frenchwoman; madame didn't last long, never got a chance to come to Dunalla. Maybe it was as well she never saw it; it was a far cry from the glitter of the court at Versailles. It was said she shone there with the finest. And Eleanor Picton in her turn. She was one for the dress and company, not like this one. Crazy about Turlough she was, always wanting to be with him. The children were fostered out to the aunts or anybody: Fergal shared between the French relatives and Rose O'Shaughnessy Drynan at Moybranach, the two older girls to HERSELF, Millicent Picton at Philipstown in the King's County. Caroline was passed like a parcel between Moybranach and Dunalla. Reared among her own people, she belonged to them more than any of Turlough's brood. Now Millicent Picton had come, determined to make a lady of the girl. But the court fool could see there were several ways of being a lady and this poor, proud woman might have one notion and Miss Caroline quite another. A wave of pity swept him for the creature wringing her hands under her heavy cape.

“It's lonesome for the brother she is,” he said in a soft, soothing voice.

Thus startled, Millicent leapt to her high horse. Her reply was like a whiplash.

“She might have tried harder to keep him at home, then. There was no call for him to go back to France.”

“Maybe he thought it his duty.”

“Duty indeed! To the French Republic that confiscated his Burgundy estate! It was his duty to stay and serve his own people and his own interests.”

“Take the king's shilling in the heel of the hunt, eh?”

“Fergal could have got a commission in His Majesty's army, even yet. Officers are needed for war with France. It could have been arranged. But no, the O'Shaughnessys always had to fight against their own best interests so long as it was against England's. Over the generations they lost everything fighting for a free Ireland. Free Ireland and the empty belly. Even an independent parliament is not enough for some. They must get the castle crowd out ..... disinherit the landlords ..... burn their mansions ..... hang the magistrates ..... abolish the garrisons ..... get rid of law and order. Folly! Expecting help from Napoleon! Will they be better off if he takes them under his heel?”

“I wouldn't know anything about these things ma'am; but I'm sure there's something in what you say.”

“She wouldn't know either, the poor, ignorant little girl?” Millicent sniffed.

Caroline was coming at last, her feet skimming the rough path, her head held high. Three pairs of eyes watched, each seeing as the mind saw.

“A beauty,” Millicent Picton agreed grudgingly. “She has an air about her in spite of her wild up-bringing. A lady, if she had her due ..... if her great-grandfather's earldom had been registered. Surely there must be some record. I must do my best. Now that my father is dead, I'm less than welcome in the old home at Philipstown. That wife of my brother's! Still, I have a right to space in my own home ..... and room for any guest I bring. Horace should be ready to welcome his own niece. Maybe she'd take the place of the daughter they lost ..... win over that begrudging woman ..... find a place in polite society ..... find a good husband.”

“The chieftain's daughter,” Owen thought. “The best of the brood. Reared among us the way she should be. With half a chance she'd be queen of the west. But where's there a king to match her? Where among the fox-hunters and farmers, the chancers and cheaters is there a bit of dignity left? All on the up-run or the down-run. But she's Turlough's daughter; she has a mind of her own. God take care of her in these uneasy times.”

Above on the hill road, Hugh Ro O'Moran let the horses graze as he watched.

“Aphrodite rising from the foam. Fionnuala, daughter of Lir, riding the waves of the sea ..... the waves ..... the three great waves of Ireland ..... the terrible waves of destiny.”

Caroline eased herself into the round car beside Millicent. There was more room next Owen, but she had no wish to sit facing her aunt's critical eyes. Owen sat well back on his own side, avoiding knee-to-knee contact with the lady. Millicent rummaged on the floor for another wrap.

“You're shivering, child. Put that round you.”

Caroline shook her head.

“Pride feels no pain, eh?  Who's to see you on this God-and-man-forsaken road?”

“None that I'd mind seeing me. I'm not cold.”

“In that dress! You must be. This is no place or time of year for wearing silk. The peasants are wise enough to wear the warm bainin. You should get old Bridget to give you some lessons on the loom; then you could weave a cloth more suitable to this climate.”

“And my station in life, Aunt Millicent?”

“Perhaps. The O'Shaughnessys have little prospect of improving it. It was their own choosing to be as they are. Poor or no, an O'Shaughnessy shouldn't be above wearing a bit of traditional Irish plaincloth.”

Owen slapped the pony's rump with the reins. The trap swayed and rattled as they took the rough road. The last red of sunset was dying; the chill of night hung damply in the air; the hills crouched under the wide sky; a harvest moon rode plump and golden. The rattling trap and the clip-clop of pony hooves were disembodied sounds breaking the hush of the tide, the whisper of wind in wayside furze.

The tear-stains had dried from Caroline's dress. She smoothed the warm silk along her thighs, tip-touching the slim band of gold that reminded her of Fergal. She thought of him standing, erect and proud on the deck of the fleeing ship, going his own way. She would too.

“I shall always wear silk, Aunt Millicent,” she said suddenly. Fergal wears fine uniforms. Gwen and Lucy wear velvet and satin and laces. Why should I be different?”

The remark both pleased and irritated Millicent. She pursed her lips, uncertain how to answer. Owen cracked the whip in the air. It sounded suspiciously like a hand-clap.

“Be careful, Owney!” Millicent gasped as the pony leapt forward. “We have a precious cargo of pride on board this bone-shaker. Caroline, for a girl of your age, you have a lot to say and a great deal to learn.”

“And you see it as your task to teach me, don't you?”

“My duty, Caroline ..... my obvious duty.”

“I'm everyone's duty ..... Aunt Rose taught me a great many things.”

“Indeed ..... a great many things you'd be better never to learn. And she let you have too much time and freedom to do your own learning. Running wild about the countryside. Picking up foolish notions from old Bridget and the rest of the peasantry. What did you learn that would fit you for civilized society? Do you know how to behave like a lady? Have you learnt to use the embroidery needle or the water-colour brush? Could you stand up in a quadrille? Can you play a musical instrument?”

“My father said I had a fine touch on the harp.”

Millicent shrugged and drew her wraps closer about her.

“The harp indeed ..... the Irish harp! In what handsome drawing-room, or what elegant company will you find a young lady plucking those crude strings? What acceptable airs do you know?”

Caroline averted her head. She seemed to be listening to the staccato of the pony's hooves, the furtive whisper of wind in dying grass, the long, far sigh of the lonely sea. Millicent Picton hated the lonesome sounds. She must fill the emptiness.

“Your mother was so accomplished. She did the daintiest embroidery. She could sing like an angel. And she learnt to play the pianoforte at Miss Dinkleford's school for young ladies. We were lucky to have the opportunity of attending such an academy. Right in the heart of County Kildare, too ..... a very civilized county. The people we met ..... ah Caroline, I cannot tell you what an advantage it was in later years! Sadly, the school closed when Miss Dinkleford died. A real lady she was, with the most splendid connections. What an influence!”

“It must have helped mother at the French court.”

“I'm sure it did. But the French court was the wrong court. She could have shone at any court. But after she met your father, she cared about nothing but following the French flag. Nothing in her head, not even you children, but the fripperies of the French court and its loose ways of living. Style, she called it. Hmph!”

“Wasn't it style, then? Surely it was more elegant than the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin. Tell me, Aunt Millicent, why do you hold such a grudge against my mother ..... against my father?”

Millicent felt the sharp flick of Owen's glance. The old scar of her own rejection burned like a cancer in her heart. But she must hold her tongue. Her life's one love had been the wild, handsome Turlough O'Shaughnessy. It was at Miss Dinkleford's school for young ladies that she had met the plain, backward daughter of old Lord Clanburren ..... a rare catch for this academy of manners. Millicent Picton had made a point of cultivating her acquaintance. That was how she came to spend so many holidays in Co. Clare, riding about the Clanburren estate on the last of the fine horses ..... meeting the outlaw chieftain, riding by his side, matching her equestrian skills with his. One day she would persuade him to settle in Ireland, make her his bride, and together they would make Dunalla the social centre of the west. The dreams she had dreamed! The hopes she had hoped, right up to the moment on that night of the ball at Dunalla, her own suggestion ..... when her light-headed sister had stolen a march on her. Under her wraps, she smoothed the creases in her worn gloves.

“Grudge?” she said gently. “I hold no grudge, child. I'm tired and the night air is cold. It's been an upsetting day.”

“But it meant nothing to you, aunt ..... Fergal's going, I mean.”

“He could have stayed and taken the King's commission.”

“Like John Ferriter?”

“Like John Ferriter, as you say. I'm sure Mr. Ferriter would have advised him.”

Owen whistled softly to himself. The melancholy sound of some strange Irish air riled Millicent.

“Stop weeping, Owney,” she snapped. “You know I can't bear your dreary music. Out of tune too.”

 

 

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