The ball was two days off, and the whole tedious business of getting ready over. Caroline woke early and, suddenly filled with distaste for the too-sweet confinement of her little room, threw open the window and gulped the crisp, cool air of a spanking October morning. The first rays of the sun gilded the distant mountains. The breeze that fanned her lace curtains smelt of moss and dry leaves. The chestnut champed in his box, reminding her that he had had little brisk exercise for weeks. He needed a good gallop and she was just in the mood.
Bringing her boyish garments from the cupboard where they had lain since her arrival, she dressed in haste, bound up her hair and set the cocked hat at a jaunty angle. From her mirror a youth looked back at her, the same youth who had set out from Dunalla. She stole quietly down the stairs and, by way of the kitchen, out to the stable yard. The chestnut whinnied as she approached. She fetched the saddle and bridle from the tack room, moving quietly lest she disturb the lad who slept above in the hay. Saddled and bridled, the horse stepped out, snorting and sniffing at the morning air. She led him gently by grassy patches, to the paddock, where she mounted and let him take his head.
For a few rounds, he was content to circle the paddock; but impatience rippled in the movement of his powerful muscles. Responding to his mood, she spurred him at the boundary fence. He sailed over like a bird. Away they went at full gallop, crossing the wider pasture, clearing a ditch to the next. They followed a straight path across country, scorning the obstacles of fence and hedge, stone wall and ditch. Feeling this powerful machine between her knees, eager and able to respond to her lightest touch of hand or knee or heel, she was filled with a wild exhilaration. So much for learning to be a lady. This was living. She laughed as she thought of the sedate, side-saddle jogs by winding bridle-paths at Lucy's gentle pace; the chestnut seemed to share her humour.
They left the little town far behind. She neither knew nor cared where the chase led; the breeze in her face was as heady as champagne.
Some miles off, they struck a main road. For so early an hour it seemed uncommonly throng. Caroline drew rein, watching from a distance as a line of cumbersome equipages passed in single file and at a fairly sharp trot. Each vehicle was packed with people, all men and, by their raised voices and hearty guffaws, in high spirits. They were attired in a variety of hunting dress, and it was quite plain that they had breakfasted uncommonly well. In fact, they were a hunting party who had rendezvoused ..... and caroused ..... at the hospitable home of a certain yeoman-farmer not far from the spot where she watched. Replete with beefsteaks, mutton chops, kidneys, eggs, bread and butter, honey, wine tea, coffee, whisky and ale, they were heading for the place at which their horses awaited them. Presently Caroline saw where the horses stood, saddled and bridled, in the charge of their grooms.
The party began to disgorge from their carriages. There was a great to-do as they mounted, some falling off, some falling over, all talking, a few taking a swig from a bottle or flask. Unnoticed by any, Caroline spurred her horse forward and mingled with the melee; she was only another of the local sportsmen who attached themselves to the party. There was so much hailing and hawing, banter and laughing, passing back and forth of sundry flasks, thirsty swigging from the same, that none had time for spying strangers. As for the grooms, they had enough on their hands, getting the gentlemen mounted on suitable horses and facing the right way.
A great furore broke out when it was discovered that there were no dogs. The dog handlers must have mistaken the venue, and were probably waiting at another point. Instead of hunting the fox, the party had to begin by hunting the hounds. They threw themselves into this unlikely sport with great enthusiasm and energy, and no small skill in horsemanship for, hard as it may have been to mount them, these men could ride. Caroline blessed the wild days she had spent galloping cross-country on Martin Drynan's horses, rough-riding them for the hunt or the point-to-point or for the hazards of war. It seemed an accepted rule that riders never deviated from a straight line, but leapt ditch and hedge, stone wall and dyke as it came, in true steeplechase fashion. There were some extraordinary feats of horsemanship and there were some calamitous falls. But fallers had to re-mount as best they could; they could expect neither help nor sympathy, unless they actually broke their necks. The man who could not sit on his horse, drunk or sober, over soft ground or hard ground, over field or fence, was no more than a figure of fun. Hurt or no, he had to get on with the chase or be laughed out of countenance afterwards.
Caroline was quite sober and less anxious than most to show off, or to be noticed in any way. She was able to steer her course by the lower dykes and less sprawling hedges, to keep to the firm ground and avoid the obvious pitfalls. She was perhaps the first to spot the waiting hounds. Most of the others were so engrossed in showing what they could do on horseback that they were near to turning the hunt into a steeplechase. The yowling of the dogs as they rushed from cover reminded the huntsmen what they were up to. The handlers had fortified themselves against the morning chill with copious draughts of poteen; the hunt, or steeplechase, might have passed them without striking a chord. Fortunately the dogs knew their business. Away they streaked, leading the hunt as their noses led them. They had scented the trail of a hare. The hunt was on.
Tally-ho and Huzzah, and away the party careered, following the mad chase with more gusto than guidance. Caroline pursued with the best, sometimes surrounded by the sweating, swearing company, sometimes deviating to save her horse, always stretched to her limit to keep up and keep on. Over hill and dale they pursued, through stream and across moorland while the sun rose high in the sky, and began to decline westwards. No sooner had one hare been brought to earth than another was started and the chase was in full cry once more.
It was well on in the afternoon when the hunt was called off. Caroline had not the slightest idea where she was, so she followed the huntsmen. They had apparently come full circle and were heading for a large, square house set in demesne lands; it was the home of the wealthy yeoman farmer, their host for the day. They rode into the stable yard and, tumbling off their horses, handed them to the waiting grooms. This was her moment to escape, unnoticed, for all were heading eagerly for the house itself. But the smell of roasting meats was too much for her; she had not eaten all day. She handed the chestnut to a stable lad and followed the hungry horde.
Inside the big, untidy house, all was warm and welcoming. Massive peat fires blazed in every room. The firelight glanced off a tremendous array of bottles and glasses; sideboards and tables groaned with a weight of huge dishes of all sorts of meats. The atmosphere fairly sizzled with savoury odours. It was a huntsman's feast, full and plenty, inelegant and hearty. As they came, the huntsmen helped themselves, heaping great platefuls of food, filling every shape and size of glass. There was no protocol and no serving; every man for himself, as in the chase, and devil take the hindmost. Since there were no watching servants, except one elderly woman and a clumsy lad, who appeared from time to time to replenish the dishes, there was no need for manners, no need to stand back in the free and plenty for all.
Sizing up the situation, Caroline pushed forward, lifted a plate and helped herself. To look like the rest, she poured a bumper of wine. In a shadowy corner of the room, she seated herself, to enjoy the food without being noticed. Beyond one slap on the shoulder and a hearty, “well jumped, young fella-me-lad” none addressed her. They were all too busy addressing themselves to a huge meal, guzzling and gulping, throwing bones to the dogs, barking insults and compliments to one another, tallying the hares raised and the hares brought to earth, to bother about one callow youth with a big appetite. She ate in peace, and sipped as much of the wine as seemed wise, and was mightily entertained by the scene before her eyes as the faces reddened, mouths grew greasy with fat, chins dribbled gravy, wine loosed tongues till the conversation was not at all fit for ladies.
So absorbed was she that she did not spot the tall stranger in uniform, who stood in the doorway, watching. His eyes lingered on her for several minutes before he withdrew, puzzled by the likeness. Curiosity had led him there. One goblet of wine, a few words to the host, and he was gone, wondering as he rode away in the gathering gloom.
Presently, her hunger abated, Caroline began to feel the heat of the room and the oppressive smells of sweat and mud and peat smoke and dogs and food for which she had no further desire. The conversation was growing as thick as the smoky atmosphere; any minute now, she would be drawn in whether she wished or no. And then the cat would be out of the bag. She slipped out, unnoticed among the comings and goings. There was nobody in the stables. The grooms, having fed and watered the horses, had repaired to the kitchen for their share of the feast. The gentlemen would not require their horses for some time ..... or their carriages, or whatever. Not till morning, perhaps, would the party wind to a close. Even now, the house was swelling with boisterous laughter. Glad to be out in the crisp, chill air, she led the chestnut from his stall.
“Poor boy,” she said, patting his neck, “you need rest, but we must be going. I hope you can smell your own stable, the way horses are supposed to, for I'm afraid I don't know which stars to steer by.”
She took the home ride at an easy
pace, watching out for recognised features in the landscape. The years of
living out-of-doors had accustomed her to take in the shapes of hill and wood
and river; she made hardly any mistakes even in this strange country. The sky
glittered with stars; their light was sufficient. It was only as they neared
the town of
As they stumbled, weary and relieved, into the stable yard, two figures detached themselves from the shadows. Caroline started, but it was only Maureen and the young stable-hand. Maureen rushed forward, eager to greet her
“Oh, Miss Caroline, isn't it glad I am to see you home safe an' soun'. I knew you'd come, whatever himself here said; but you did give us a turn. Praise God you're back before the captain. He doesn't even know, would you believe it. Had you a gran' time to yourself?”
“I had, Maureen, the grandest of a time. I'll tell you all about it later. But tell me now, how did Lucinda take it?”
“She's a wonder, Miss, the way she can take everythin' so evenly. I never did see her like. Mind you, she worried on an' off, but then she'd say you got all the way here an' nobody worryin' about you, an' you'd get home wherever you were this day, an' what good would it do worryin'.”
Caroline hurried into the house, before the surprised boy could take further stock of her dress. When she entered Lucinda's cosy parlour, her sister rose with a shriek of delight.
“Oh Caroline, my dear, how glad I am to see you ..... how very glad! How fresh and healthy you look! And I was trying not to picture you fallen in some ditch and lying, pale and in pain, with no one to rescue you. Instead you were having a wonderful day. You must tell me all about it. But, before Gerard comes you had better change and let your hair down. I'll ask Maureen to bring tea. Just slip on a dressing robe. I can't wait to hear everything.”
When they were settled by the fire, teacups in hand, Caroline related the whole of her day's adventures. It all seemed far funnier in retrospect and Lucy laughed till the tears came. Not a thing was omitted, including the crudities with which the huntsmen peppered their conversation. This Lucy relished enormously.
“I always suspected,” she remarked “that men were not nearly so polite when they were out of women's hearing. They treat us like china dolls with very delicate ears. Didn't you feel embarrassed?”
“You forget, Lucy, that I spent most of my childhood among Uncle Martin Drynan's stable hands. They forgot I was there a great deal of the time. I heard nothing today that was in the least unfamiliar but, it is very likely I should have blushed had I been dressed as a lady.”
“Really Caroline? We had very different upbringings. With Aunt Millicent, I was scarcely allowed to listen to, never mind pick up even the simple country expressions of the servants. I think I missed a great deal. But do describe some of your hunting companions more fully; I may recognise a few of our local gentry. I long to picture them as they really are.”
Caroline described a few, mimicking their speech and mannerisms till Lucy cried:
“Darling, have mercy! In my condition, I'm sure one shouldn't laugh so.”
There were a few whom she believed she recognised. They might be at the ball. This took Caroline aback.
“Do you think I shall be recognised?” she asked.
“Not a chance, my dear. Think how different you are going to look ..... not in the least like a country youth.”