CHAPTER 25

 

The cold east wind that had held constantly for nigh on five weeks, drove chill deep into the bone of man and mountain. It was a good wind for the ships, Hugh Ro kept reminding her. On the morning of the 21st, he roused her early. The wind had dropped. It was a perfect day for landing. But still no sail in sight. Hugh Ro could make nothing of the delay, for how was he to know of the dilemma of the fleet separated from its commander, its officers uncertain of their duty in the circumstance.

“We are going for a long walk,” he said. “The woman of the house will give us some food. Out there, to the west, there must be something.”

They walked out of Bantry in the still morning air, following the south shoreline of the bay, pausing, from time to time, to scan the sea from a higher vantage point. On one side lay Bantry Bay, on the south side, Dunmanus Bay; south-west, they could see the Three Castles Head and, beyond that, Mizzen Head. The Atlantic spread west to the shores of America, pewter grey and still.

Sail! Many sails! The great ships hugged the shore, waiting for their commander. The wind was light and the sea calm. Soldiers thronged the decks to see the strange land in which they were almost on the point of disembarkation. The hills were white with snow, no reception party waited. But, perhaps in the bay. Perhaps.

To the two watchers on the heights the delay seemed incomprehensible. Hugh Ro walked here and there restlessly; Caroline strove to keep back the tears. Out there, on one of the spell-bound ships, Fergal was scanning the shore. She felt her heart fly like a seabird to meet him; the golden band burned on her thigh. Why were they waiting?

“Maybe they have decided to land under cover of darkness,” Hugh Ro suggested, but it was hollow comfort for there was nothing to hinder them now, and time was not on the French side; the news would spread as it always does.

The most westerly cove on the peninsula was at Kilcrohane in Dunmanus Bay. There were a few fishing boats beached on the strand. A fisherman was examining the keel of his little craft. Hugh Ro approached him.

“Your boat looks in good trim,” he said. “And 'tis a calm evening for a change. It would be calm enough to put out wouldn't it?”

“It would. Many's a rougher day I was out there and made it safe home. Is it thinkin' of a jaunt you are?”

“It is. I'd like to get closer to the foreign ships.”

“Ay. I seen them pass this mornin' an' I after the sheep on the hills above. Headin' north they were. Would it be to Limerick or Galway? They'd be far away by now, I'd say.”

“Not far. Once out of this cove and round the corner and you'll see them. They seem to have anchored.”

“What for would they anchor off the shore in these parts? There has been talk of an invasion. Maybe it would be as well if they stayed anchored, if that's what they have in min'. Still an' all I'd like to see them from near han'.”

The two men man-handled the little boat into the water and took an oar each. Caroline, wrapped in her sealskin, sat huddled in the stern, her heart rocking to the gentle rhythm of the waves. The air was chill; out of the shore mists, the stars appeared large and low.

At last the great ships loomed up in the misty darkness. As they drew closer, they could pick out the flagship, Indomptable, figures thronging her decks. Aboard was Wolfe Tone, a slight figure in the heavy blue surcoat of a French adjutant-general. Aboard was Fergal Etienne O'Shaughnessy. The rowers pulled nearer till they were within hailing distance.

“God save all here,” Hugh Ro called out. Cead mile failte!”

The welcome might have been wasted but for Fergal, who knew the Irish ..... who recognised the voice of his friend. For a moment, he leant over the bulwark, scanning the sea, picking out the tiny boat. Then a rope ladder was slung over the side. Hugh Ro scrambled up it and disappeared among the shadowy figures on deck. Caroline waited with baited breath, wondering what was to happen to Hugh Ro ..... to herself and the silent fisherman who was doing his best to steady the boat at the nearest safe distance from the great, towering ship. She looked up to see the thin-featured face of an unknown officer scrutinizing them. For a brief few moments she looked in the face of the man whose dream and determination had set the expedition on its way, the legendary Wolfe Tone, with his doomed ideal of “a brotherhood of affection”.

There was no sign of emotion on his pale face. He looked, and was gone. And then she saw her brother's face. With no thought for her own safety, she clutched the rope ladder, preparing to climb. But Hugh Ro waved her back and began scrambling down. And, placing his strong frame firmly behind her, he guided her up the swaying steps. Below them the sea was dark and deep; above, Fergal waited, his face illumined by a torch. In the still, dark night there was this one halo of light and the golden life-line that drew them together, and Hugh Ro risking his life that they hold hands for a moment.

Fergal leaned far over the bulwark and grasped her hands and held them firm. Another step, and she was near enough for him to lean down and kiss her forehead. She could have died in that moment for sheer joy. If that chaste kiss was to be the only kiss forever, it was enough, for it seemed in this moment, that she could never love any man as she loved this man who could be neither husband nor lover.

“My Caroline. My darling little sister. How brave you are. How true!”

“Oh Fergal, Fergal,” she cried, clinging to his hands, seeing only his face in the flickering torchlight, the black sea and the rocking boat forgotten.

“You will land tomorrow?” she said, recovering herself.

“If all goes well, we shall land.”

“I shall be waiting. Oh Fergal, I hope all will be well and you safe.”

“And you, Caroline. God speed you safe to shore.”

“And you, Fergal, God speed.”

The rope ladder swung precariously, but Hugh Ro held her steady.

“You must go now,” Fergal said gently. “Tomorrow we shall meet again. Take care.”

So they parted and the torch went out. Down into the darkness, Hugh Ro’s strong arms steadying her, she descended. It was not easy to find a footing in the little boat which bobbed like a piece of driftwood in the lee of the great ship. Hugh Ro wrapped the sealskin around her and she crouched still as a sea-creature and silent, her face wet with tears. And they were pulling for the shore again, and the ships fading like ghost-vessels in the misty dark. She strained her gaze towards them as they faded. Then the headland hid them from view.

 

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