Dunalla slept, dark and silent as an uninhabited half ruin. Rags of cloud drifted across the face of the moon. The waters of the estuary murmured of rain, a drumming hollow sound that might have been the thud of spectral hooves. Millicent, exhausted and stupefied by the last of the wine, slept deep and dreamlessly in her skin-strewn bed. Caroline smiled in her sleep, dreaming of aery horses. Then woke, listening; but there was no sound except the drum-roll of the tide and the lonely sigh of rainy wind. She snuggled under her soft-furred rugs.
Thwack, a pebble struck her window with a gritty sound! Then another. She did not wait for the third. Half asleep she ran to the window, expecting in her dreaming state to see Fergal below in the bawn, summoning her, to some mid-night adventure. Then remembering that Fergal was gone and praying that no spectre had returned to tell his tragic fate.
A man's figure detached itself from the shadow, standing clear as the moon stripped. He was taller, broader and older than Fergal. It could not be ..... oh no ..... her heart raced with the thought of the handsome, scarred man who had promised to seek her out. But not here. No, somewhere in the far-away future, in another place bright with chandeliers and music. This man was older than he, shock-headed and dressed in labourer's moleskins, his bainin waistcoat and rough shirt open half to the waist. An apparition? But no, for the sound of hooves was no dream; she could hear real horses cropping the grass; the pony whinnied, recognising kin.
“Caroline!” a resonant voice called out, softly enough not to rouse the keep, clearly enough for her to hear. “I have a message from your Aunt Rose Drynan.”
“Come down. Do not fear. I am Hugh Ro O'Moran, your brother's friend.” Fergal's friend! The man Maureen met at the ceilidhe. The man who could charm birds from the trees. Of course ..... that resonant, singing Kerry voice.
She made haste to dress and, throwing the sealskin around her, hurried down the winding stair. It did not matter if Bridget heard, or Maureen; her haste was to forestall Millicent. But she need not have hurried; Millicent, for once, was asleep.
As Caroline opened the creaking door, she was confronted by the powerful frame glimpsed from the window. Tall as she was, Hugh Ro towered above her, his features roughened by the winds of time and hardship, his arms and shoulders strong from bearing heavy burdens. The moon, escaping a wisp of cloud, picked out his shock of hair that must surely be flame red in daylight; for him it picked out the face of the girl, proud and fearless and innocent in the pale light. Regal she stood in the doorway, the seal-skin lapped about her, her hair falling over her neck and shoulders, her eyes clear and steady.
“Why have you come at this hour, Hugh Ro O'Moran? What message have you brought that cannot wait till morning?”
“I have come to fetch you home to Moybranach, Caroline.”
“In the dead of night? Aunt Rose must be truly mad.”
“While the other one sleeps. Before she dissuades you.”
“How am I to know that is your real mission. What proof have I that you have not come to abduct me at some gentleman's bidding? I have heard that such trickery is common enough among the young bucks when they run short of amusement. Many an anxious father has been consoled for his daughter's shame by an assured tenure of land. It would take all the forfeited lands of the O'Shaughnessys to pay for me ..... restored for ever to my kin.”
“I would that they might be restored. It may be that they will ..... sooner than you think. But not for your honour, Miss Caroline. Never!”
“How do I know that you come from Aunt Rose?”
“I have her horses.”
“You could have stolen them.”
“I could have stolen the fine stallion I was trusted to bring back from Carraigeel. You saw me there.”
“I saw a man with the horses on the road. I scarcely looked. I was thinking of other things.”
“You wept for Fergal. Heart sore I was, watching you. Your other aunt kept calling and you did not hear. The round car waited. The pony pawed the ground.”
“All that is true ..... but how can I be sure.”
“Ask her,” Hugh Ro said, looking over her shoulder into a dark hall, where his sharp eyes had detected Maureen's approach.
There was no need to ask. Maureen addressed Hugh Ro directly:
“Arrah Hugh Ro, it's glad I am to see you again. But what brings you here in the clouds of the night? Are you come to take Miss Caroline away?”
“I am, Maureen, but only as far as Athenry. Her aunt wants her to come home.”
“I was expectin' some move like this, Miss Caroline. Neither of them two will give up tryin'. Have you made up your mind? Are you goin'?”
“I have made up my mind, Maureen. I'm going.”
Maureen caught her breath. It sounded like a sob. Caroline patted her arm. “You're coming too ..... if you want to?” she said gently.
“Oh, I want to. But how can I? You have only the two horses an' even so I couldn't ride a horse.”
“You could ride the pony. But wait, I have a better idea. We'll take the coach and travel in comfort. It's mine as much as anybody's now that Fergal's gone. He wouldn't hinder me. Now, go and tell your grandmother. Maybe she'll have the kettle on the boil; Hugh Ro could do with something to eat after his long ride.”
Bridget emerged from the gloom with the reassuring word:
“Sure the kettle's on the boil an' I'll have the tay wet in a minute. Come away in, Hugh Ro O'Moran. It's glad I'll be to entertain a man of the music, an' the young master's friend.”
“Come on, Maureen,” Caroline said, “we must be ready as soon as Hugh Ro is finished. Get your warm cloak and any clothing you need.”
“Miss Caroline,” Hugh Ro said gravely, “you know the perils of travellin' the roads by night in these unsettled times. I'd sooner have only one young woman to protect.”
“If I go, Maureen goes!” Caroline said firmly, then a smile broke, lighting her face; “but, of course you could do with another sword-arm; the bucks who rake the roads by moonlight would never face two, even for a pretty girl like Maureen.”
“I'm not sure that I understand you,” Hugh Ro said hesitantly.
“You'll soon understand,” Caroline reassured him. “Just have your tea. Take your time about it, for you're welcome in the house of O'Shaughnessy.”
When Hugh Ro re-emerged from Bridget's kitchen, he was met on the doorstep by a slim youth in doeskin breeches, silk shirt, moss green jacket and silver-buckled shoes. About his shoulders hung a heavy, dark driving cloak. An apparition, surely, but there was one feature Hugh Ro could never forget: the mantle of red-gold hair that fell about the youth's shoulders, conforming to no male fashion that he knew.
“Well, how do I look?” Caroline asked, twirling before him so that he could see her from every angle. “I'm about the same size as Fergal was at my age. The clothes are a little old-fashioned, but we don't keep up with the times here in the west. The cloak covers me, anyway. Well, what do you think? Will I do?”
“You'll do well, Miss Caroline. I'd have mistook you for a lad myself, except for the hair.”
“It's too long, isn't it? Have you got a sharp knife, Hugh Ro?”
“Oh no, Miss Caroline!” Maureen wailed, “not your beautiful hair!”
Bridget stifled a gasp and a wise, resigned look settled on her wrinkled face;
“Whist Maureen,” she said. “Miss Caroline's right. 'Tis sad to be parting with her beautiful hair, but sure 'twill grow again. She'll be safer so. It's well enough to be wanderin' the familiar country around here, an' a friend in every cottage; 'tis different to be abroad in a strange place. Ach, Miss Caroline, I'll miss you. But you'll be back, maybe.”
“I'll be back, Bridget, as sure as the moon shines on Dunalla. Now, Hugh Ro.”
Hugh Ro's rugged face was a study in sorrow as he sheared off the shining mass of auburn hair, not letting it fall to the ground, but handing each tress to Maureen who wrapped it in a kerchief. All but the last tress; this he did not hand over. Maureen understood. She turned away to place the kerchief in Bridget's hands.
“Keep it safe, granny,” she said softly and Bridget promised with tears in her eyes. As Caroline turned to address Owen, who had emerged from the stable, Hugh Ro, twined the silken tress about his fingers and, taking a small, leather purse from an inside pocket, stowed it, warm and safe above his heart. He brought out a length of ribbon, long cherished, and began to bind it about the shorn hair on Caroline's neck, drawing it tight into a queue, a style still common in less fashionable circles. Caroline put on the cocked hat that completed her disguise. How beautiful she was, transformed to lad from lady; so thought Hugh Ro O'Moran, the heart heavy within him for the wasted years of his life.
There was no time for regretting. On Caroline's instructions, Owen had thrown open the coach-house door. When they drew it out in the moonlight, the coach shone in a splendour of sea-green enamelling and silver mounts. It was Owen's pride to keep it speckless as the day it came new to Dunalla, Turlough's last grand gesture. He would drive his beautiful Eleanor to routes and race meetings, to fetes and festivals, and she would be well and beautiful again; like a legendary king and queen they would draw wondering eyes. And wondering eyes they did draw on that first and last outing before Eleanor pined and died. And the wonder was not all for their beauty and splendour, but for their audacity who were émigrés and outlaws in their native land. Now they were dead and their daughter drove by clouded moonlight and in disguise. Old Bridget, noting everything, asked no questions. When Caroline came to bid her good-bye there were tears in her eyes.
“I'm sorry to leave you, Bridget achree. I'm sorry to take Maureen from you.”
“No call to be sorry, Miss Caroline. ‘Tis better to go before it's too late. Sure Owen will be here to take care of me. Bless you, child. Go n-eirigh do bhothar leat (May your road rise with you)!”
Maureen was running across the bawn.
“You forgot this,” she said, holding out the sealskin coverlet.
Hugh Ro made to mount the box.
“I will drive,” Caroline said, “till we get far away from here. This is my father's coach. If anyone stops us, or asks questions, I have a good answer.”
Hugh Ro nodded. He took his place on the box beside her. At a stately pace they drove out under the arch. Bridget and Owen stood together, lonely figures under a shadowed moon. When Caroline turned to wave a last good-bye, their heads were bowed in a silent prayer. Behind them the keep stood dark and desolated, a petrified stump against the moving clouds; below in the estuary, the tide stirred restlessly.
Caroline cracked the whip and the corn-fed horses broke into a smart canter. No word was spoken till the party reached the main road. There Caroline reined to the right away from Moybranach.
“This road runs south,” Hugh Ro reminded her, but she only smiled under the brim of her cocked hat.
“I know,” she said, “this road runs south.”