“So Captain Marsmain was your mysterious cavalier all along. You kept your secret well, Caroline. I think you might have told me.”

“How could I be sure that the man you described was really he. I knew him as Nick.”

“Ay, the devil, though I do believe you are the girl who may turn him into an angel. I have never seen him so devoted to anyone. I'd have sworn he had really fallen in love at last”.

Caroline felt uneasy under her sister's gaze. Last night was a dream, she had no surety that there was any substance in it. She was tired after days of exertion, tousled and a little out of humour. So much of Nick Marsmain's past was unknown. She found the hints irritating.

“Lucy,” she said, “I wish you would be quite frank with me. Tell me how Nick got that scar. Was it in a duel? Why?”

“Yes Caroline, it was in a duel ..... or so it is said. Nick was very silly in his younger days ..... always hot-headed and hot-tempered ..... ready to fight at the drop of a hat ..... or a glove. He met another fighter in Richard Daly, the actor-manager of Crow Street theatre in Dublin.”

“But why did they fight?”

“Over a lady ..... an actress. Some young bloods attempted to kidnap her from the theatre. It may have been a prank. At the time, Nick seemed quite crazy about her. It is years ago. He was very young.”

“And the actress, what became of her?”

“Her stage career was brief and spectacular. I think she enjoyed notoriety. As far as I know she has retired to complete obscurity, though there are rumours that a lover has set her up in an establishment of her own somewhere in the country.”

“Not Nick!”

“Oh no, not Nick ..... an elderly gentleman of wealth and position who prefers to remain anonymous. Quite the lady she is nowadays, if one can believe what one hears.”

“Nick lost the duel, did he?”

“That time he did. It was better so. It was the only defeat Nick Marsmain ever suffered. No one would challenge him now. You may have noticed how all your eager suitors kept at a safe distance last night. One look was enough.”

“You make him sound quite an ogre. He seemed so strong and brave.”

“He is strong and brave ..... and determined to the point of ruthlessness. If he has chosen you, my darling Caroline, then you will find him an ardent lover who will not be baulked. Sincerely, I think you will be very lucky to capture him.”

“I had no thought of capturing him as you put it. Aunt Millicent seems to have taught you very successfully. A girl's one aim in life is to capture a suitable husband. How perfectly disgusting!”

“Oh no, Caroline. Marriage is a most desirable aim for a girl with good looks and no fortune; the better the marriage, the better for her. Believe me, beauty can be a handicap unless it leads to a sound marriage. You have begun well ..... do not trifle with your chances. Nick Marsmain was a playboy ..... may be still.”

Lucinda's homily was interrupted by the appearance of Annie with a message. Captain Marsmain was below and wished to see Miss Caroline O'Shaughnessy. No, he had refused to come up; he was in a hurry. He begged Mrs Seveny to pardon him for calling so early. It was unavoidable.

Caroline blushed to think how she looked as compared with the previous night. She had risen late, for her, and had done nothing to beautify herself. She looked exactly like the wild child who had gate-crashed the Ferriter's ball. Lucinda noted her confusion, and said kindly:

“You'll do as you are. You look as sweet as a dryad of the trees, all tousled hair and rosy cheeks. I declare you will drive the poor man wild. But, do not keep him waiting; it sours the keenest lover.”

Caroline hurried down, trying as she descended the stairs, to summon some semblance of calm; failing utterly as she saw the eager look on Nick Marsmain's face. Her dishabille had just the effect Lucinda foresaw; Nick's eyes devoured her. At the bottom of the stairs he caught her in his arms.

“Oh my darling, darling, darling Caroline!” he exclaimed huskily, “I am so glad to find you at home. And so beautiful even on the morning after the ball. What a picture I shall carry in my heart, though it breaks my heart to leave you now. But duty calls. I have received orders to report to General Dundas at Kilcullen in the County Kildare. I shall be gone a little time. Once before I asked you to wait for me. You did not wait. This time I beg you ..... wait for me.”

“I will wait,” she promised.

Wrapping his great cloak about her, he swung her off her feet in a powerful embrace.

“Oh Caroline, I wish I could carry you away with me; then there would be no more waiting for either of us. I am not a man who enjoys waiting. I want you now.”

He embraced and kissed her fervently. In a daze, she allowed him to lead her to the door. His horse stamped impatiently, defying the efforts of a groom to hold him. There, in full view of the eyes behind lace curtains, Nick embraced and kissed her, holding her close and tenderly. Then he leapt to the saddle and, bending down, took her hand and kissed her finger tips.

“You have promised,” he said, his eyes fixed on her flushed face. “I expect you to keep your promise. Remember.”

As he clattered away at a smart trot, there was hardly a window without its watchful eye. At the end of the street, he turned once and waved back and Caroline waved like a girl in a dream: the girl on the tower waving to her knight. She knew intuitively that she had made some sort of impression, whether of wantonness or triumph. She was too young to know, or greatly care what the good folk of Fermoy made of her behaviour.

Lucinda was clearly pleased for she had missed nothing. She was even more pleased when rumour told what an impression her sister had made. She basked in the reflected light. There followed a busy social round for the two girls; they were included in invitations to tea parties in the best houses; they were fawned on by the wives of local squireens and businessmen. No assembly was complete without their presence and, as the circle of admirers and acquaintances widened, the sea-green coach was seen more and more frequently on the roads about Fermoy. Lucinda devised coiffeurs and corsages, ordered gloves and slippers, kept Annie busy altering and re-trimming gowns and mantles till the whole of life seemed to be a fashion parade. Everywhere they went, the sisters drew murmurs of admiration, feats of gallantry, envying glances. Gerard Seveny rejoiced to see his sweet Lucy so happy and blooming. Her extravagance alarmed him, but he comforted himself that, after the child was born, she would settle down, and that, perhaps, his father might increase his personal allowance.

Seveny was the sort of man to carry burdens not meant for him. He was uneasy about Marsmain, not sure of the man's intentions towards Caroline. He was too old for her, not that age mattered, too colourful and dramatic, drawing too much attention. His reputation was, to put it mildly, rakish. Quite simply, he did not like the man. Maybe it was through envy; Marsmain was everything, had everything, that he might have wished for himself, and carried it all with a careless arrogance he could never emulate.

He considered paying a visit to his parents in the County Kildare. Alas, his father's neat estate, Avonroe, would never be his; he was a younger son and not his mother's darling. She had not approved his marriage to a pretty, dowerless girl of dubious connections, but, if she saw Lucy now, so radiant and so soon to bear a grand-child, perhaps her attitude would change. How could she fail to love Lucy? And, loving her, forgive his own impetuous marriage ..... forgive his birth, for that matter, for she had never been maternal and had considered one confinement a painful necessity and a second pure imposition. Pregnancy interfered with her equestrian pursuits. There Caroline would score with her. They must bring Caroline to Avonroe. In the social ambience of the Kildare-Dublin vortex she must surely attract a suitable husband; then she would be off his hands.

Meanwhile, Lucy chose a different metier and her whim must be indulged. She and Caroline would spend a few days at the fashionable spa of Mallow. At the close of the season, it was denuded of much of the fashionable and feckless society who flitted from one rendezvous to another ostensibly taking the waters, but more eager to squander time in dancing, flirting and dressing up.

An aura of notoriety clung to the place even in dull November; only the “rakes” who were too impoverished to venture on the Dublin season, remained; but they were keen pursuants of any offered pleasure, any novelty. The sisters had no shortage of partners in promenade or dance, no want of outriders to accompany the coach on its daily outings. There was no dearth of gossip and tall stories, trivialising such events as Mail coach hold-ups, abductions, seductions, duels, drinking feats, dabblings in the occult. Caroline had an insight into the sort of triviality with which an idle, feckless society amused itself. Lucinda acquired enough scandal to keep the tea-parties going for months.

“What a conceited lot of young blockheads they are,” she remarked as they sat one rainy afternoon by their window watching the bucks strut by. “Hardly one has the price of a new pair of breeches ..... small clothes, to be polite ..... and yet they are arrayed like Solomon in all his glory. Some of their attire is as old as Solomon too, I declare. I doubt if one would see so colourful dandies in the city nowadays where uniform and plain cloth are all the rage and even Lord Edward himself has been seen driving abroad attired in plain brown. What colours we have here! What loosely fitting frock coats, what flowery waistcoats, what prodigious pantaloons! What powdered hair ..... and what cropped hair! What a diversion of buckles and shoe-strings! What ruffles and no ruffles! What a vast array of silken stocks! What capes and cape-coats! All styles and no style. I do declare I could laugh till I dropped down dead. How Gwen would laugh. My darling Caroline, look long and hard; never again may you see such a promenade of masculine vanity.”

“How loudly they talk! How they guffaw! Even to me, and I have seen but little, they seem uncouth.”

“Uncouth they are. At this time of the year, in particular, they hang about the spa because they cannot afford to be in Dublin. Mostly they are upstarts ..... or down-runs, with little money or prospects and a deal of impudence. They have not a thought beyond the next escapade, be it a mock hold-up, a daring abduction, a run of luck at the tables, or a glance from a doweried lass. Beware, sweet Caroline!”

“I do beware, Lucy. It is quite unlikely that any of these can turn my head. The whole parade reminds me of the Ferriter's ball.”

“You were the belle, I wager.”

“I felt so plain in my high-waisted blue dress ..... not a flounce or furbelow.”

“Quite tonish, I assure you. Why Lady Edward dresses simply in Irish muslin; so Gwen tells me. All the mode is for simplicity. It suits you. Quite a dasher, they would say. But tell me about the Ferriter's ball ..... everything. It was there you met Nick Marsmain was it not?”

Caroline told her the whole story for the first time. Lucinda heard with many an Oh and Ah of surprise or amusement. Maureen, whom they had brought with them, came in with tea on a tray. The three were like children together, laughing and happy, just being themselves and minding no rules of manners or position.

“I declare,” Lucinda said at last, “this evening has done me more good than the waters of the spa ..... or the entertainment ..... or the rest. I have not laughed so much in ages. Your Maureen is quite too funny. I only wish I could have her to care for my child.” Later, when they were alone, she asked: “Are you really in love with Nick Marsmain ..... really, truly?”

Caroline could only smile. It was all like a dream. For weeks now, and for the weeks that followed their visit to Macroom, she drifted in a dream of love which gave her face so sweet, elusive gravity that the young blades were ready to die for one passing smile. Her very detachment rendered her the more alluring. She moved between two worlds and which was real she could hardly have said. Her state was quite uncharacteristic of her, who had always, even in her dreamiest phases, been essentially realistic. This was not a passing mood; in ways, it was more like a sickness. But had not the poets said so of love. She waited for the missives that came regularly from Nick by mail coach, read them as though they were poetry, folded them in the bosom of her dress, never wearying of their repetitive triteness. In love for the first time in her life, she was unaware that her delirium was more a state of being in love with love than of loving any man.

Though it was winter, she lived in an inner glow that was Indian Summer. A delicious lethargy held her bound in the narrow circle that would, at one time, have seemed stifling. Little news of the unease in the country reached this small paradise for Gerard was careful never to excite Lucinda. If the French were on the sea, it was no more than a mirage. War was something that happened elsewhere.

But the golden band that bound her thigh was real. And she could not quite forget Fergal and the ship speeding out to sea in the autumn haze. And Hugh Ro O'Moran watching from the high road. And Dunalla ..... the fort of the swan.