The sun was declining when they resumed their journey. Hugh Ro took the reins and, being acquainted with the country, took by-paths to avoid observation. By lake and wood and thatched cabins where peasants threw him a greeting, they pursued their leisurely way. The Slieve Bearnagh mountains loomed out of the twilight away to the east, and melted again into the gathering darkness; rain clouds covered the rising moon.
“Tonight we shall sup at the house of a friend,” Hugh Ro had promised. He reined the horses into a winding driveway flanked by tall beeches. Presently the white facade of a long, low house appeared. The clouds stripped to reveal an unusually neat and well-cared, if modest, farmstead. The lawn before the door was level, the fences strong and trailing with fragrant plants. A row of beehives promised honey. One window welcomed with a glow of firelight and glimmer of candles.
At the sound of wheels, the door was flung wide. A terrier rushed to meet them, tail a-wag. A slight, wiry woman, with modest dress and neatly bound hair came forward; a silver-haired gentleman waited in the open doorway. The Quaker and his daughter, friends to all, had no fear of untimely guests; their life was passed in caring for field and garden, beast and man, and in succouring the sick and welcoming the stranger.
“God save all here,” Hugh Ro greeted. “We are late visitors.”
“A friend is never late, Hugh Ro,” was the kindly reply.
A farm-hand appeared with a lantern. Leaving the care of the horses to him, Hugh Ro made haste to explain why and where they travelled in so unlikely a conveyance. Neither James Hemson nor his daughter evinced surprise, nor asked further questions, but welcomed the three to the hospitality of their home.
In the big, warm kitchen that smelt of fresh-baked bread, Noreen made haste to spread a white cloth and lay out all the best in the house of home-cured bacon, home-made cheeses, fresh bread, butter, a piled dish of russet apples, honey on the comb. A quiet woman, she let the men carry on their conversation; they had many things to say to each other for they were old acquaintances and Hugh Ro had often helped with the hay-making.
When they had supped, all repaired to the parlour from which the first welcoming light had greeted the travellers. Large, comfortable, yet lived in, it was the kind of room Caroline had never seen before. Even the drawing-room at Philipstown, which she had seen briefly at the time of Lucinda's wedding, was not at all like this. Much more pretentious, it lacked comfort and the humanity of read books and shabby armchairs and pictures chosen for the love of themselves. At Moybranach the kitchen was the heart of the house; there was warmth and comfort and music, but no touches of grace. Dunalla was a relic of times past. Here, elegant, comfortable old chairs, a bookcase full of finely bound but well pursued books, a few handsome oil-paintings, thick curtains, hand-woven rugs, all added to the sense of grace and ease. Late roses lent their perfume.
“Will you sing for us, Hugh Ro?” Mr Hemson asked.
“I will sing, James ..... and I'll play the tin whistle, if you like.”
“It's a pity you do not play the harp. It's a long time since that old instrument was played. My fingers are too stiff now, and Nora is more skilled with the loom.”
“Caroline plays the harp,” Maureen interjected.
“Ciaran, till this journey's over,” Hugh Ro said quietly.
“Well Ciaran, will you play the harp for me?” Mr Hemson asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
“I'll be glad to play for you Mr Hemson. But first, let Hugh Ro play the whistle. Maybe Maureen will dance. You should see how well she does.”
“You are going to be splendidly entertained, father,” Nora Hemson said, her own pleasure evident.
Splendidly entertained he was, with Hugh Ro fingering the tin whistle till Maureen could sit still no longer and was tripping a merry reel, barefoot, in the middle of the floor, her red petticoat swirling, her face flushed and her eyes dancing to the music. James Hemson watched, delighted as a child; Nora tapped her toes in time. For a few moments her gentle brown eyes rested on Hugh Ro’s rugged face; she wore the expression of a woman who loved but dared not tell. The expression faded; her face was a folded flower. Caroline had intercepted the look; she turned to the books on the shelf beside her.
“I see you are interested in my books. They are very dear friends. Do not be afraid to peruse any you like; they are used to familiar treatment.”
“I have never seen so many together,” she said, reaching for a volume with many exquisite bird pictures.
The music and dance paused for breath.
“Mr Hemson is a great scholar,” Hugh Ro explained, “he is quite celebrated as a naturalist and an antiquarian. He is writing a book.”
“With much assistance from you, Hugh Ro, and many others of my friends, I am trying to put together the observations and experiences of a countryman's lifetime. I want to pass on some of the great pleasure I have found in life. I have accumulated a great many old legends, and folk-tales and songs that nobody sings now. They must not be forgotten. But my dear, make an old man happy. Play me a tune on the harp. Do you know that sweet air, the Coolin?”
Caroline nodded, pleased to give this kindly old man pleasure, Noreen brought out the old harp and, to her delight, it was a traditional instrument like the one at Dunalla. Her fingers touched the strings lovingly, and found them in tune, for in this house, it seemed nothing was neglected, nothing unseemly or out of tune. The sweet, sad air of the Coolin, filled the listening room.
There were more of the favourite tunes, and a song from Hugh Ro. Maureen was dancing a jig, her white feet twinkling, petticoat a-swirl, when a knock on the door halted the fun. Noreen admitted two caped and spurred travellers. Both wore uniform under their long cloaks.
Caroline recognised John Ferriter immediately, and withdrew further into her shadowy corner, hat pulled low over her eyes.
“Well John ..... Captain Ferriter, I mean!” Mr Hemson greeted. “Though I am not for the uniform, as you know, I am glad to see you ..... my old pupil. And your friend?”
“Lieutenant Esher,” John replied briskly. “Perhaps you wonder why we pay you a call so late; indeed I thought you would have retired before this. As we rode past your entrance, I noticed the lighted window. We heard music. You have guests. We must not intrude.”
“That you do not, my friends. We have already supped, but Noreen will bring you a glass of mead, made from our own honey. Tell me how you fare, John. It is years since you passed from my tutorage and we have lost touch, but I have heard some brief outline of your progress.”
“Thanks to your excellent teaching, Mr Hemson, I have made some advance. I am now on my way to join the garrison at Limerick ..... General Duff's command. There is rumour afoot of a French invasion. It may be idle talk. Have you heard anything of it on your travels?”
His sharp black eyes had been sizing the little party up, especially Hugh Ro to whom the question was addressed. Hugh Ro shook his head.
“I have heard nothing beyond the common talk,” he said, steadily.
“You would, of course, regard it as your duty to report any sound information?”
“I am aware of my duties, Captain.”
The exchange was brief and seemingly
harmless, but their eyes were steel on steel. Noreen Hemson
interposed with a glass of mead for the visitors including Hugh Ro; her father
included all equally in his conversation. But the newcomers' eyes never rested;
Ferriter's from Hugh Ro and
The conversation turned to music.
“We have a man of the music with us here tonight,” Mr Hemson said, “and well we have been entertained.”
“I heard a merry jig as we approached. Would you oblige us by playing it again?” Ferriter asked, with a hint in his voice that he was putting Hugh Ro to the test.
Hugh Ro nodded and began. Maybe there was a look passed between him and Maureen, and maybe it meant more than an invitation to amuse the strangers, but Maureen was on her feet in a trice and stepping the jig, swirling her skirt, flirting her pretty ankles, drawing attention to herself ..... away from Caroline.
When the dance ended, she stood, poised for another, her roguish eyes on the young lieutenant, who was obviously very pleased; indeed his eager admiration, egged on by this shameless damsel, displeased Ferriter. Very soon he rose to take his leave.
When they had gone, James Hemson turned to Hugh Ro.
“Are there rumours of an invasion?” he asked, “I had not heard.”
“The French fleet is assembling at
“I understood he was deported to
“He returned to
“I fail to understand the enthusiasm for war. So much destroyed ..... so little gained, except sad memory. You too are a man of peace, are you not?”
“I am, James. I have seen too much madness ..... too much sorrow.”
“Tell me, Hugh Ro, if war should come, how will it fare with quiet people who take no part?”
“There will be no war for such as you and Nora. You have no enemies. You serve your country and your neighbours without hate or prejudice.”
“I have only used the talents God gave me.”
“You used them well, James. You need have no fear.”
With the old man's blessing and his daughter's gentle farewell, they took their leave. The horses were yoked and Caroline took her place on the box, beside Hugh Ro. A little shaken by recent experience, she felt she wanted to be near this strong man who put no trust in violence. It was a new thing to reflect on that heroism was not all heroics.
Mr Hemson had wished them a peaceful journey and it seemed that his wish would be fulfilled. The rain held off; they moved in muted moonlight, the horses' hooves making little sound over fallen leaves, the sigh of trees gentle about them.
They had travelled but a short distance when two mounted horse-men appeared, holding the middle of the road to bar their advance. Hugh Ro reined the horses to a standstill. The riders drew along-side the coach hands on their pistols.
“Our journey is urgent. Kindly allow us to pass,” Hugh Ro said firmly.
“Not till we learn who you are and where you travel so late ..... and why.”
“We have already met, Captain Ferriter. Why ask the question? By what right?”
“Our duty is our right. It is our duty to maintain the security of this land and those who dwell therein.”
“In this instance, I think you exceed your duty.”
“We have authority to halt and search any vehicle we deem suspect. Well young sir, what say you?”
The question was addressed to Caroline.
“You may search,” she replied, hoarsely.
“Now for the treasure,
He opened the coach door and peered inside. Maureen cowered away.
“Come my pretty, don't be shy. I've a handsome young man here ..... that same lieutenant you were ogling but half-an-hour past. You have no call to mind the spalpeen above on the box ..... nor the spalpeen's lad.”
Hugh Ro was torn between two impulses: to drive off at speed and risk pursuit and capture, or to spring upon Ferriter and land a blow, that, in his anger, might be death or maiming for the Captain and, for himself, the gallows. Neither solution would help his charges.
Ferriter was half in and half out of the coach.
“Try the other side!” he called to Esher.
If he lived long enough, Lieutenant
Esher would tell his grand-children how he once, long ago in
Ferriter gave no order. All his training and skill to arms and the battle-field had not obliterated the fears and superstitions of a ghost-haunted childhood. White-faced and silent, he mounted his horses and, at full gallop, pursued his lieutenant. Neither drew rein till they reached garrison.
“It will be a peaceful night from now on,” Hugh Ro said to Caroline. “You'd better get inside the coach and have a sleep, if you can.”
She found Maureen, head in lap, giggling.
“Who taught you that, Maureen?” she asked.
“Me granny was a keenin' woman; but she had a keen or two that wasn't for a decent wake. 'Twas herself taught me. She said it might come in useful.”