Captain Seveny, immaculate in dress uniform and looking positively handsome, stood waiting in the lobby. The coach was polished to perfection, the stable boy rigged out in an impromptu livery; the horses stamped by the door.
Caroline descended the stairs, stately and serene in her green velvet gown, her hair falling in ringlets from a silvery filet, her face delicately flushed. But a few minutes earlier, Lucy had said:
“I think it is every woman's privilege to make the best use of what beauty she has. My feet and ankles are my strong points. It is wonderful how much admiration is provoked with a flick of a petticoat; that is why I pay so much attention to the colour and trimmings and to the daintiness of my slippers”.
“You make me feel like a colt, Lucy.”
“You're a swan, Caroline ..... a swan in full flight. I'm just a silly little blue tit by comparison.”
It was these words that brought the flush to Caroline's cheek. Like a swan descending, she came down the stairs. Seveny nodded and smiled. Tonight he was proud of his sister-in-law. She carried herself like a lady. This night could be the turning point in her life. Perhaps she would meet a worthy suitor at the ball. That would be the best thing for her.
His eyes were distracted by the vision on the stair. How lovely his own Lucy looked in her lilac silk gown. The bill had not yet been paid, but however much it was, this vision was worth it. Lucy knew how to use the moment of adoration. She held her skirts just high enough to allow satin-toes slippers to peep from a froth of delicate lace, paused long enough on each tread to permit a glimpse of ankle, caressed the banister with a dainty hand, rustled softly as she moved. Seveny held out his arms to receive her so gently that not a strand of her perfectly coiffeured hair was ruffled.
“Oh, my darling ..... darling Lucy!” he whispered in her ear.
Tonight she might dance and flirt with whom she liked; no frown of his would mar her pleasure; she was his irrevocably now ..... the mother of his child. And this would be the last ball for months to come.
None made a more impressive entry than
the little party from
For a moment or two, Caroline's gaze dwelt on the great house, then as her eyes followed the coach as it drove away into the stable yard, a familiar shape loomed up. The wide archway to the yard bore what appeared to be a roofed passage connecting the main structure with a much older building. Outlined against the starry sky stood an old keep. It was covered in ivy and appeared to be quite disused. Unlike the newer mansion it stood in total darkness among the leafless trees. The faint light that glimmered in one narrow window must surely be a reflection. Of course ..... what else. But Lucy was urging her on. As they ascended the steps to the hall door, light and music rushed out to welcome them.
The great hall was far larger and more
impressive than that at Ardcullen. Tiled in Italian
marble, elaborately decorated with fine plasterwork on cornice and ceiling, it
seemed to encompass a vast space. A splendid, richly carpeted stairway wound
upwards. Chandeliers glittered with innumerable lights. Caroline followed her
sister and brother-in-law in a daze, at first intimidated, then letting her spirits
rise to the occasion. Was not this her dream fulfilled? A chieftain's daughter
whose mother had danced at
“Captain Gerard and Mrs Seveny, and Miss Caroline O'Shaughnessy!” they were announced.
“Caroline O'Shaughnessy, who is she?” the murmur ran round the assembly under the chandeliers. Eyes turned to look at the tall girl in green velvet with eyes like the sea and a coronet of red-gold hair. Like a field of corn, the crowd swayed this way and that, for and against the stranger as they admired or envied. Lord Ballinmore, a handsome, erect man with silvering hair and a sensual mouth, was bending over her hand. Lady Ballinmore, with a thin-lipped formal smile, offered a cold limp hand; her nod was perfunctory, her manner detached. In that brief encounter, Caroline sensed a strange aloofness that was more than pride; in her hostess's eyes there lurked some secret preoccupation; they were the eyes of a haunted woman.
She was glad to move out of range of those haunted eyes. At the same time she was relieved to escape the appraising look with which Lord Ballinmore regarded her. She was too inexperienced to read his expression but she could not fail to note the mixture of admiration and some other emotion which made her feel ill at ease.
“I see you have made a conquest already,” Lucy whispered as they drifted away. “Ballinmore has an eye for a pretty face ..... always had ..... beware, my darling sister.”
“Is that why Lady Ballinmore looks so sad?”
A shrug brought the conversation to an end. There were other things to claim their attention, and Lucy was determined to make the best of her last ball.
They moved among the company from room
to room, an attractive group that drew much attention. Even Seveny
looked genial and relaxed in what he deemed to be agreeable company. Lucinda
nodded to acquaintances whose names she could not immediately recall, smiled at
all who smiled, paused for a word with a few. She made a point of introducing
her sister to those she favoured, especially the eligible young men. Since the
“Save a space for me,” Gerard reminded her as her programme filled.
“Save more than one space ..... save a few,” Lucy advised, “I read the look in Ballinmore's eye, the old devil.”
A whole orchestra of musicians had been engaged for this, the ball of the year. Now a set dance was announced and the music struck up. Lord Ballinmore headed the formation with a dowager lady dressed in grey satin; her lord, a small wizened man more accustomed to the saddle than the dancing floor, partnered Lady Ballinmore. Beside him, she looked very tall and gaunt, a wraith of a woman with cold, unhappy eyes. Caroline, placed further down the line, wondered again about that haunted look, which even a formal smile could not quite erase. It reminded her of Aunt Millicent in her more tortured moods. She could appreciate the emptiness and frustration of Millicent Picton; but this woman had everything: a handsome husband, title and position, a splendid home ..... wealth presumably ..... and an heir, the elusive Arthur whom she had not yet seen.
The music called, however, and her partner was smiling. And after this dance, a succession of dances with smiling partners. Short on words, they flattered with their eyes, and their clasping hands spoke volumes. She smiled at their pleasantries, parried their attempts at wit so that each felt he was making a tremendous impression till he saw her smile at the next. The fact was that Caroline was enjoying the dancing for its own sake ..... and, naturally, the admiration. She was young and free to enjoy the music and movement, to revel in the ambience of light and colour, perfume and powder, rustling dresses and tapping feet. This was the sort of occasion Gwen had pictured for her. And she was part of it ..... by no means least among the ladies of the throng. Lucy showed her delight; even Seveny smiled approvingly.
Now Lord Ballinmore was bowing over her hand, claiming an unfilled space in her programme. He led her to the head of the formation and, though she recoiled a little from his possessive touch, she could not help feeling flattered by the attention he lavished quite boldly on her. She was honoured. What mattered it that fans fluttered before whispering mouths? Their noble host, having danced his 'duty' dances in order of protocol, was now free to choose, and he had chosen her. “A swan in full flight,” Lucy had said; free and strong and graceful as a swan, she skimmed through the figures of the dance. Her partner's eyes devoured her grace.
Once in passing, she glimpsed a narrow face with sloe-dark eyes watching from an alcove. Perhaps he was the only man in uniform who was not dancing at the time. John Ferriter would make a survey before choosing a partner; there was a certain insolence in his appraisal. She hoped he had not noticed her. Like a mask, a dazzling smile lit her face as she turned to her partner. It was as much an appeal for protection as anything, but it was a dangerous move, for Ballinmore's ruddy cheeks grew redder and his grey eyes greedier. Not that she noticed any change, except that he seemed handsomer and younger. And he reminded her of somebody .....
“Thank you, my dear,” he said warmly as the dance came to an end. “Now we must find your lovely sister. I want to beg a place on her programme.”
Lucinda was seated on a gilt chair, her lilac silk arranged to skim the turn of a silken ankle, her hands soft and pale as folded flowers in her lap. Seveny stood by her side, protective and proud. As Ballinmore approached, she greeted him with a dainty curtsey. How distinguished he looked in his fine drab coat, she thought, how well cut his breeches, how shapely his silk-stockinged calves; how neat his feet in silver-buckled shoes ..... a regular dandy of the old stock. Ah lah! How times were changing.
Ballinmore swept her a bow, expressed a hope that her programme was not quite filled.
“Not quite, my Lord,” she responded with a delicate arch of her brows. “How could any programme be quite filled without your name ..... the handsomest man at the ball, I declare.”
While Ballinmore exchanged banter with Lucinda, Seveny led Caroline to a vacant seat and took up his protective stance by her. Here he could fully appreciate his darling Lucy's social prowess for, no sooner had Ballinmore withdrawn, than she was surrounded with admiring young men whom, he felt he need no longer envy.
She shone softly against their tailored cloth and crusty lace; her composure contrasted with their eagerness. Caroline, quite unaware that some of the attention lavished on her sister was, in fact, on her account, felt a pang of envy. Then, aware that envy was a poor beauty treatment, she set herself to scan the whole assembly.
The room was full of faces ..... the house was full. They came and went, tip-toeing, chattering, laughing, between the ante-room and the two finely proportioned chambers thrown open for dancing. Back and forth the rustling, chattering tide of colour moved; eyes met eyes; matches were made or broken, reputations enhanced or devalued, gowns and head-dresses taken to pieces and assessed; a sniff or a smile, a darting glance or a lovelorn look, a nod, a beck, a bow or a back-turn, all meant so much more, or less, than it seemed to indicate. Caroline knew only a few phrases of the strange language of social intercourse; but she was learning, and this was a splendid opportunity.
Lord Ballinmore, his lady on his arm, was circulating among the guests, he smiling and ebullient, disseminating compliments to the prettier young ladies, she, dark as an eel, and watchful, mouthing suitable phrases. They drifted out of sight, presumably to mingle in the other chamber, arrange for the last dance before supper ..... an important dance since partners in the dance were usually supper partners and who took and whom was taken into supper might be a gossip focus for months to come.
When the Lord and his Lady reappeared, attention was arrested, not by them, but by the pair who followed at a little distance. Caroline started, her hand tightening on the arm of her chair. Across the room, beyond the sea of faces, her eyes met the eyes of a man who stood taller than any, more erect and commanding. Even at a distance she detected a long faint scar running the length of his jaw-line. Clinging to his arm, a smug simper on her broad, pale face, Malvinia Ferriter invited the world and its wife to witness her triumph.
In her way, Malvinia was a vision of splendour; nothing was too good for this occasion, the invitation to which her brother had assiduously striven by every bribe in the book. Her cream satin gown had been ordered specially from Dublin and was lavishly trimmed with the finest lace; her pale face was carefully rouged, her hair coiffeured in so elaborate a manner as to be astonishing; a towering pom-pom of flowers and feathers raised her to unbelievable stature. Head held high, she matched, as far as nature and artifice would allow to the stature of the man she clutched. Only the grim determination of that clutch on his arm, betrayed some uncertainty.
“I declare, Marsmain looks like a stallion on a leading rein,” somebody muttered in Caroline's hearing.
So apt was the description that she laughed to herself ..... and listened.
“House guests, I hear ..... she and the brother ..... brother officer, I believe, a betrothal, it's rumoured ..... no beauty but the dowry's sorely needed. Ah lah, long runs the fox, but he gets caught at last.”
The half-heard rumours hurt.
After all these weeks of dreaming impossible dreams. But they were all gone now, for there he was, with Malvinia on his arm. The dance was about to begin now; the fiddles were tuning.
Without meaning to, Captain John Ferriter initiated the delicate charade which followed. He had taken his time to choose a partner. He chose with care. None but the Lady Ballinmore would do and, now she had done her duty by the more eminent guests, she was free to dance with whom she wished. He was by her side in a flash. Caroline saw him bend low over her hand ..... the perfect guest honouring his hostess. Then he was leading her boldly into the formation.
While Caroline's partner wove his way through the crowd, the second movement in the charade was executed. Marsmain took Malvinia's hand but, instead of leading her to the head of the line, he passed her over to his father with a swift smile and a few words that brooked no denial. The clutching fingers let go reluctantly, but let go they did. Lord Ballinmore led Malvinia to her place.
Cutting a swathe through the crowd, Nick Marsmain made for the far end of the room. As Caroline's pledged partner appeared before her, a detaining hand fell on his shoulder.
“Pardon me, Larry,” he said incisively, “I think this dance will have to be mine.”
Larry was a callow junior officer; he had no choice but to withdraw. As for Caroline, her hand was in Nick's, his eyes on her face, his spell upon her. The music for the cotillion was beginning.
Captain, the honourable Arthur Nicholas Marsmain, heir to the Ballinmore title, was a man to draw attention in any crowd, dashing, arrogant with a hint of ruthlessness that fascinated women and provoked men to envy. It was plain that he was used to having his own way. The fact that he had chosen Caroline before the whole assembly was enough to single her out for attention, if her beauty had not already done so. As they wove their way through the figures of the dance, totally absorbed in each other and in their own pleasure, they were the cynosure of all eyes, particularly of those ranged along the wall and half concealed by fluttering fans. The military scarlet and the Irish green danced a cotillion that could lead to any of innumerable conclusions.