Owen remained silent for a few minutes. He stared intently at the bobbing sector of road between the pony's ears. He had something to say, but it was hard for him to speak with respect, and in the English, to this fretful woman.
“It's the way with the oul' Irish airs,” he began slowly. “They're always either very happy or very sad of themselves. 'Twas a sad song that I whistled. Slievenamon 'tis called.”
“Sliabh na Mban,
Aunt Millicent, the hill of the women?” Caroline translated: “the women of
Finn. It is in south
“He cheated. Typical!” Millicent said acidly, trying not to show interest.
“If he did then, Grainne
gave him a run for it. She put a spell on Finn and the Fianna
and, while they slept, she eloped with Diarmuid, the
warrior she had chosen for herself. The story of the chase is one of the great
old stories of
“Indeed! You have great learning, Caroline, for a girl without benefit of tutors. You know all the old stories, I suppose, all the old songs and the out-of-tune airs.”
Owen flicked the whip over the pony's flanks, cutting the diatribe short.
“Fine stories, they are, and worth tellin' ..... an' the oul' songs an' the oul' tunes worth
hearin'. The man from
“Like the keen of the banshee, Aunt Millicent.”
Caroline! What else did the man from
“Not a lot, ma'am. More for listenin' than passin' remarks, he was. I had to sing every oul' song an' whistle every oul' air over an' over, an' he takin' it all down. Gatherin' the oul' songs an' music he was, before they got lost an' forgot. He wanted to hear every way of everythin'. Took great pains to write all down.”
“He must have been mad?” Millicent snapped.
“Not altogether, ma'am ..... not altogether. A well-learned man, he was ..... some said he was a professor. A professor wouldn't be altogether mad, would he?”
“That would depend. What did this learned gentleman pay you for all your time and trouble, Owen?”
“Not a farthin' ma'am ..... not a farthin'.”
“He wasn't so mad after all. I suppose it never occurred to you to ask pay.”
“It did not. I was well paid that he took the trouble to listen. There's few enough takes the time to listen nowadays. Glad he was to do it.”
“Hm! They must be short of music in
“From what I hear, ma'am, they're anythin' but short. 'Twas there they had the big Harp Festival away back in July 1792. All the best musicians in the country was at it ..... harpers that ramble the roads playin' where they can for food an' shelter ..... some that used to play for the O'Shaughnessy himself. There they were in a fine hall, playin' all the oul', despised music before fine ladies an' gentlemen, an' they takin' the greatest interest. It was like a revival meetin', but not the sort the people of the north's used to. Ever since that, the oul' airs have been played an' sung in places they were never heard before ..... sometimes with the oul' Irish words to them ..... sometimes with new words in the English, maybe. An' there's plenty of new songs ..... new airs with new words.”
“Livelier, I hope.”
“Ay, some a deal livelier ..... good stirrin' marchin' songs, ma'am.”
“American rebel trash, I'll warrant.”
“American to be sure ..... an' French ..... an' Irish songs to stir the blood.”
Owen saw the frost on Millicent's face. He curbed his enthusiasm.
“Not but I'd sooner have the oul' songs myself. It's the oul' song an' the oul' words in the Irish that comes handiest to my lips. Quieter they are ..... an' sadder, but nearer to my way of life now that I'm gettin' on.”
His words died in the hush of soft wind in trees. The road skirted the bounds of a new plantation. The young trees stood tall and thick. The moon played hide-an-seek among the branches of Joe Ferriter's trees. It was a change from the desolation of the bare landscape but, to Millicent, it brought a mixture of comfort and dread. Like the old Irish songs, the new plantation had a double entendre. The Irish had a crafty way of getting round the Penal Laws, disguising patriotic fervour in love lyrics about lone, lovely ladies and princely lovers across the sea. The trees had hidden guerrilla bands as well as giving shelter. Even their felling, which denuded the country, had had a double entendre. Felled for smelting ore or for export as pipe-staves ostensibly, they had been also felled to strip covert. Her thoughts were gloomy and confused. The trees whispered like conspirators, offering no comfort. When she first detected the low under-the-breath whistling, she could hardly be certain that the trees did not mock her. Then the truth dawned.
“Caroline!” she exclaimed sharply, “how can you be so vulgar? And what, may I ask, is that dreadful air? One of the new songs, by the sound of it.”
“It's new in a way, but you'll get to know it. It's the Shan Van Vocht.”
“Speak English, girl!”
“The Poor Old Woman.”
“Which poor old woman?”
“The hidden meaning. What does it say?”
“The French are on the sea, says the Shan Van Vocht.”
“Who taught you that rubbish?”
“Fergal taught me the words.”
“Then he might have done better to teach you a fine French chanson. The elegant French songs are very acceptable in the drawing room today.”
“Since the flight of the émigrés, of course. Fergal taught me some French songs but it's of the French ships I was thinking.”
“You had better get them out of your mind. French fleets belong to an unhappy past. Look to the future. See what's before your eyes this very minute.”
The elaborately wrought iron gates leading to Joe Ferriter's recently built brick mansion, lay wide open. A winding avenue led by young woodland and sweeping lawn to the house that stood high on a cleared elevation that afforded a panoramic view of the bay and The Twelve Bens beyond. Window by window blossomed in light; the faint far sound of music drifted on the darkling air; they could almost catch the savour of roasting meats, of pungent herbs and the exotic smell of foreign perfumes.
“So the Ferret's giving a party,” Caroline remarked innocently.
“He's in a good position to give parties and he'll not want for guests: his fortune made, wed to a lord's daughter, his son with the king's commission. It ill becomes you to call him names. He started poor and made his way. A man who betters himself earns some respect.”
“Uncle Drynan bettered himself too, yet you do not respect him.”
“Ah, the horse-jobber!”
“Aunt, who's calling names now? Isn't Uncle Drynan as much a gentleman as the .....”
“He's not so well connected, my dear.”
“Of course, he didn't marry Lord Clanburren's unlovely daughter. Aunt Rose brought him no title to lands. But, according to you, she should have been a lord's daughter.”
“Should have been is different, Caroline ..... very different ..... can't you make the pony trot, Owen? I always think the night air is unwholesome.”
“Ay, unwholesome it is ma'am,” Owen agreed, flicking the pony's haunches.
He wanted to be off the main road where the carriages of Ferriter's guests might crowd the round car into the ditch. He had been pushed aside to make way for elegant equipages in the past. The hard road was alien, but soon, they came on a huddle of thatched cabins, their wide-open doors friendly with flickering fire-light. Shadowy figures threw him time of day, ignoring the stranger who would scarcely acknowledge their greetings.
Millicent drew the rejected wrap about her own shoulders. Her chill was deep in the bone, bred of years lived in damp, draughty houses, long nights alone in her big bed. So many nights waiting her father's return, fear in her heart lest the Whiteboys lurked to ambush the magistrate.
There had been many tales of such ambuscades. She had learnt to use a pistol. Chilled by old fear, she felt in the pocket of her skirt for the steely touch.
“You're shivering, Aunt Millicent,” Caroline said with genuine concern.
“I'm all right, Caroline. Strange that I should be glad to see the fire on Dunalla hearth.”
There would be no masked Whiteboys lurking about the
“God forgive me?” she prayed in her heart, “that I was tempted to put the 'eye' on the O'Shaughnessy, and I loving him more than any woman could. Forgive me that I put the ill wish on the French wife; she died young. Forgive me for my needle in the womb of Rose O'Shaughnessy Drynan: she never bore a child.”
She meant the prayers then with the sad, autumn mist creeping in from the sea and the sea's moan in her ears. For the moment she meant truly well for the girl.
“You should take care of your silk dresses, Caroline,” she said. “You may need them.”
“I have only the one now, Aunt ..... this one. It was the only new one I had since my mother died. I had it for Lucy's wedding, you remember. Lucy chose it. It was the height of fashion six months ago. It's still good enough for any party I'm likely to attend ..... good enough for Ardcullen House itself.”
“If you're ever invited there.”
“I'm not sure that I want to be invited.”
“Come, come, of course you do. Every young girl likes a fine ball. Ah me, how your mother and I looked forward to such occasions. We travelled miles to attend fetes and festivals, and never thought the journey too far. But, of course, there was more social life where we lived. If only your father had submitted and settled down! But he chose to serve the French king.”
“And my mother danced at
“If you could call it a ball. There were fiddlers and harpers and an ox roasting on a spit in the bawn. There was too much poteen ..... too many drunk. I don't remember very well.”
“I remember, ma'am. Very well I remember,” Owen said quietly.
“It must have been a great occasion for you. All that beef! And the poteen in gallons. You were drunk that night, weren't you, Owen?”
“I was not drunk, ma'am. I had the horses to feed an' water an' rub down.” The old keep of Dunalla loomed darkly against the moonlit sky, a solid, quadrangular building some sixty feet high with crumbling corner towers. It stood on the site of an ancient fortress ..... a paw-shaped promontory of rock too precipitous to approach from the deep, narrow estuary. Surrounded almost entirely by barely navigable water, Dunalla had always been easy to defend. The land approach was guarded by a rock-fosse and an ancient earth-work. Within the earthwork a drystone wall had been built, massive as the walls of the keep itself. The round car clattered over the causeway spanning the fosse and under a wide archway, without let; the great gates sagged, wide open, on rusty hinges. Friend and stranger could enter, unchallenged. There were no foes now; few knew that anybody lived in the crumbling keep. Grass covered the once cobbled bawn. A few outhouses tottered and sagged; once servants' quarters, stables and stores, they were no longer needed. The pony occupied the only decent remaining stable; one other building housed the coach; the round car sheltered under a lean-to. Old Bridget and her grand-daughter the only maid-servants had moved their quarters into the ground floor of the keep. Owen shared the stable with the pony.
As the round car drew to a halt before the massive, studded door, Caroline leaped out. The heavy door creaked open at her touch.
“Bridget!” she called. “Maureen!”
They were expected. Almost immediately a squat figure appeared, bearing a blazing candle in a wrought-iron candlestick.
“Arrah child,” Bridget greeted, “isn't it glad I am to see you home safe. An' you starved with the coul'. Didn't I warn you to take your cloak with you? Away up an' warm yourself by the fire. Out in the night air an' nothin' but a thin dress on you!”
“I like the night air, Bridget,” Caroline laughed, patting Bridget's leathery cheek as she passed.
“The O'Shaughnessys were ever fond of the night air. There's others had no love for it. But they had their share.”
“Their share of what, Bridget?” Millicent panted as she lumbered up under her mountain of wraps and shawls, needing a hand and getting none.
“Of the night air, ma'am. It's unwholesome breathin' for some.”
Millicent sniffed. She was too unsure of her step to ask, or answer questions. Bridget held the candlestick high, throwing the light on Millicent's face, showing every line and blotch that the bitter years had imprinted. Ungainly as the old servant, she felt at a loss, unable to walk proudly as she once had done. A weight seemed to press her down. She shuddered, remembering the old “murtherin' hole” directly above her head and just within the door, the trap that could be opened to shower stones on an unwelcome stranger. Not that it had been used in her memory.
Turlough kept it as a curiosity when he had the wide stairs built and the tiny entrance hall extended. The new stairs led to the first storey; above that one ascended by the old stone spirals.
In the eerie gloom of the hall mounted antlers cast grotesque shadows on the bare stone walls. The grey shape of a stuffed wolf crouched at the stair foot; one of Turlough's jokes. Bridget led the way holding the candle high.
In the main apartment, they were greeted by a huge fire of peat and driftwood on the stone hearth. Rush-lights twinkled in their sconces along the bare-stone walls. The dark oak table was set for supper. A savoury smell of broth, simmering in a black pot on the hearth greeted their nostrils. Caroline crouched by the fire, warming her hands.
“So you did feel the cold,” Millicent rasped, “I hope supper's ready, Bridget.”
“Maureen has made the finest pot of broth you ever did taste, from the rabbit Owen snared yesterday. The oat cakes will be toasted in a minute, ma'am.”
“A poor enough meal to come home to,” Millicent grumbled as she began unwrapping, “when you think of the feasting at Ardcullen. I remember Joe Ferriter running barefoot and as skinny as a greyhound. He had a sharp eye; you could guess he'd do well for himself, given half a chance. No rabbit broth and oatcakes for the Ferriters in this year of grace, 1796. Still the poor must be thankful.”
With a withering glance at her aunt, Caroline left the room. An arched doorway led to the spiralling stairs. On the next floor another arched doorway led to her own room. Millicent had chosen to sleep in the cold, isolated room, on the topmost floor. It had once been the solarium, the family room where the ancient chieftains lived, as far as possible removed from attack.
Turlough had made it the master bedroom; its main feature was a huge four-poster bed in heavily carved dark oak. The tall, narrow windows overlooked the inlet and the sea and the distant mountains beyond the bay. It was a grand room, and spacious.
Millicent felt high and mighty in that room, cold as it was. Sometimes Maureen lit a fire on the hearth. The great, barbaric bed was laden with heavy skin rugs, the grey of the wolf, the red of the fox, brown doe-skin, creamy sheepskin, all hand-stitched in voluminous coverlets.
Caroline liked her own smaller apartment better; it was nearer the living, moving earth. She had appropriated softer coverings for her own bed: a thick red blanket and a velvety coverlet of seal-skin. For a few minutes now, she sat on her bed, the moonlight falling about her, her hands caressing the soft skin. The sea pulsed gently in the creek below. “Poor Aunt Millicent,” she thought, “I must try to be gentle with her. She means well.”
Below, Millicent was fussing ..... rubbing her cold hands by the blaze. Maureen turned the oatcakes to crisp in the glow.
“Did you remember to put the hot bricks in my bed?” Millicent asked and Maureen nodded in reply.
“Twice she put fresh ones in since you left,” Bridget corroborated. “An' there's another pair warmin' on the hearth there for you to take up when you're goin'. If you don't mind me sayin', I never knew such a coul'-rifed body as yourself.”
“I was used to civilized living,” Millicent responded tartly, turning her back to the fire. The warmth began to seep through her bones. Without her wraps, she felt light and free. The savoury smell of broth tickled her palate. For the moment she had a great sense of being at home. The cold eyes of her sister-in-law were far away in Philipstown. Under them she was the poor relation; here she was, for the moment queen.
Her eyes surveyed the frugally laid table with its apron of blinking, gnomish masks and twining tendrils, a barbarous piece of furniture in the Irish style: the carving too realistic for grace or comfort. And the great armchair at the head with its deeply incised ornamentation made her feel uneasy. Last night Fergal had sat in the chieftain's chair, a ghoulish mask grinning over his shoulder. Tonight there was no setting at the head of the table. She moved one setting and seated herself in the chair. Here she was a little nearer the fire and out of view of the fierce, grinning mask. It was a relief. It was a relief too to be spared the view of the huge mural that adorned the chimney breast.
Facing her was the arched doorway by which Caroline must re-enter. “Poor child,” she thought, “what a place to live, what a lonely life she has. I really must talk to her tonight.”