Early on a crisp January morning in
the year 1797, a tall, rugged man with a shock of red hair and a slight youth
wearing a battered, cocked hat, walked south from the
By the light of the stars, they proceeded briskly, talking little, whistling and singing to pass the miles away. By , they reached a small township where there was an inn and there they had a meal. A carrier agreed to give Caroline a lift as far as Dunmanaway, where she could hire a chaise.
As the rickety vehicle took the road eastwards, Hugh Ro stood watching, his face strained and pale as though his heart was leaving him. For several minutes he stood, immobile; then he turned abruptly and walked away, nor once looked back. His eyes were misted with tears.
There were tears in Caroline's eyes also, but she hid them from the carrier. The rough road wound away into a troubled and misty future.
“What is that mountain to the north?” she asked, hoarsely.
“That is Shehy, sir. There's a pass through them mountains by the Cousane Gap, but it would be no way fit for a pony an' cart. 'Tis many a time I travelled it on foot. A great view you get up there in the mountains.”
Caroline nodded, hardly hearing what he said. Her mind was flying away over the mountains, far away to the north-east where Lucy would be waiting to welcome her, the little frilled and ribboned room with its downy bed ready to receive her. Could its frail walls ever shut out the memory of the storm, the stranded ships dragging their anchors, Fergal's pale face glimpsed in the flickering light of a torch, his hands holding hers?
she parted company with the carrier and, anxious to press on, she set out on
foot; by starlight she could shorten the way to Bandon; from there it would be
a straight run home. Home! As she walked, she thought of home
..... of so different homes. What a long way it
had been from Dunalla to the cosy room in
She had started out bravely, anxious to avoid prying eyes, oblique questions. But, as she proceeded, darkness impinged on her confident mood. January chill made her shiver; the unfamiliar road was haunted by unnameable menace. From black shreds of cloud, the stars leered fitfully like winking, watching eyes. Wisps of fog drifted over the meadows, furtive as evil spectres. Clumps of furze crouched by the wayside; the stream muttered to itself. There was not a soul on the darkening road, nor a house-light to be seen. She missed Hugh Ro's whistled music and the sound of his companionable feet.
The eerie stillness was broken by the clatter of horses' hooves. She heard the gruff voices of men calling to each other. Some distance ahead of her there rose, like ghost riders, a company of horsemen. They had erupted out of nowhere, it seemed ..... some haunted spot of underworld connection. They were riding away from her, but she must pass that haunted spot. Were they devils? There were those who could call up devils, she believed. Who had called up these riders of the night?
Fighting off her terror, she moved slowly forward. Presently she came to a clump of stunted trees. Among the trees, she made out the shape of an abandoned building. It was the dilapidated remains of an old church. All around it, in the tangle of brambles and withered grass, tombstones leaned and tottered, their lettering slimed with moss. The empty windows of the church gaped darkly into the misty gloom.
If there was a church, there must have been people. A cluster of tumbledown cabins began to take shape; not one was complete, nor was there any sign of habitation. A wisp of mist mimicked smoke from a chimney, then drifted away. The few remaining doors hung ajar on rusted hinges. Only the church door stood fast and solid. This was a village of the dead, the habitat of a community that had died of plague or had been spirited away.
A faint glow seen through a window aperture drew her; whether it was real or imagined, she could not be sure. She stumbled over the rough path to the door. Her fingers touched the rough-cut stone of the wall. The church was real enough and the oak of the door was firm. She pressed against it and, slowly, it creaked open. The interior atmosphere was curiously warm. It smelt of wood-smoke. The darkness was suffused with a faint glow. Upon what unearthly celebration had she intruded: a mass of the dead or a witches' Sabbath?
She entered cautiously, her eyes growing used to the reeking dusk. There was a lingering savour of roasted meats, a faint odour of horses, even of humanity. Yet the church was quite deserted.
A flame sputtered into life, then died in the heap of greying embers seen momentarily in the middle of the floor. She moved towards the glow and, finding a piece of charred stick, stirred the grey embers into life. More charred wood lay about the dying fire. She piled it on and presently the whole interior was filled with a rosy light. Here and there a trace of gilt winked, the altar, the pulpit and the lectern took shape, light and shade picking out their deeply incised carvings. There was no other furniture. In one corner a pile of freshly gathered wood was stacked. Piles of heather and grass were laid out as if for bedding. Dry leaves and horse-droppings strewed the bare flagged floor.
There were traces of a recently consumed meal. She found some bread wrapped in a cloth and a half empty wine bottle. She had not eaten all day; now she was ravenous. Crouching by the fire glow, she supped of what remnants she could find, then, replete and weary, she stretched on a heathery couch, her sealskin wrapped around her. Presently she fell asleep.
The fire died down and a damp chill, creeping across the floor roused her to the moan of wind along the walls and the eerie rustle of dry leaves. The place seemed haunted. Half awake, she wondered what strange company had bivouacked here, then rode away into the night. All over the country in recent times men had met in secret to swear dark vows. Were these such an outlaw band? Would they return?
The answer came very soon. She heard the approaching thud of horses' hooves. There was a shouted order. They halted. There was the sound of a firm footfall on the stony path. She cowered in the gloom, waiting.
The door rasped open. A man's footsteps echoed on the flagged floor. A tall figure loomed over her. As he bent down, she lost consciousness.
When she came to, the stranger was chafing her hands. His touch was strong and tender. She seized his hands and clung to him. Then his arms were folded about her and his mouth was warm on hers. There was a passion in his kiss ..... of desire mingled with anger. He drew her abruptly to her feet. Maybe it was for the benefit of the young lieutenant who had just arrived at the door, but Captain Marsmain's voice was harsh ..... even arrogant:
“You're all right now, young man. You can ride back to Bandon with us. There we'll decide what is to be done with you.”
“There are only the two horses,” the lieutenant said, spotting what appeared to be a youth in his senior's grasp.
“Then you'd better find another. Walk till you do,” Marsmain replied sharply.
“I have no money .....”
“Money, be damned. We are not buying horses, now. This is a war. If the owners of horses want our protection, they must be prepared to surrender their horses when they are needed. Have you never heard of living off the country?”
The lieutenant saluted and went out. He was not used to living off the country; this was his first practical lesson. Nick Marsmain began tumbling the bedding. With the aid of a torch, he found what he had returned to seek ..... the leather case containing his log book.
“Now,” he said, turning to Caroline, “you will have a real opportunity to show your equestrian skill. The route will not be cross-country, but the horse is spirited. Let me see how you handle him.”
His tone stung Caroline. She would show him. Two horses were cropping grass by the roadside. The black stallion, Nick's own horse, was to be her mount. He regarded her with tossing head and hostile eye. Nick helped her into the saddle, the horse prancing with corn‑fed energy. She could feel the power of the beast. Yet she must control him. Nick did not wait to see how she fared, but sprang to his own saddle, calling out:
“Follow me. We have a long rough road ahead and it is through enemy territory. The whole country is enemy territory now. But you won't mind that, I'll warrant.”
After the first half mile or so, Caroline felt herself gaining the submission of the horse. With her light weight to carry, he would have preferred to lead rather than follow; like his master, he was used to leading. But her hands were strong and skilled on the reins. The notion of riding by night through “enemy territory” intrigued her. She had never been called upon to think of any part of her country as enemy territory. Until these latter days, the small, scattered garrisons had been seen as alien in essence, but largely harmless: the militia were men of the people, and remained so at heart; their officers were the strangers, or so the peasantry saw them, though many of them came of families long resident in Ireland. She had never been entirely on one side or the other; now she was thrown on the military side. Her own countryfolk were the “enemy”. There was danger in the whispering hedges. It was a rough ride in every sense of the word.
Marsmain was angry with her and would offer no comfort. Young girls who would not wait for their lovers deserved whatever befell them. He spurred ahead over rough and rut, through mire and pot-hole, an officer on duty who brooked no impediment. When a dog ran, barking, from a wayside farmstead, a swift crop-lash sent him yelping in pain to his own quarter. It could have been man.
Soon they caught up with the company, some half dozen militiamen, who saluted their officer and fell in behind him. If they noticed that a fresh youth had replaced their young lieutenant, it was not for them to comment or question. They plodded on, glad to be nearing their base; it had been no joke bivouacking in that ghostly old church.
As they clattered into Bandon, the sky was beginning to clear. Marsmain dismissed his men and rode on beckoning Caroline to follow. Presently they turned into a street of tall, narrow brick houses. Before one of these Marsmain dismounted and, bounding up the steps beat a tattoo on the door-knocker. A light appeared in an upper window, then wound downstairs. The door opened cautiously and Caroline glimpsed a tall woman, candlestick in hand. There was a soft exchange of words; then Marsmain beckoned her forward.
The dingy hall was similar to that at
“This is Caroline,” he said. “Caroline, this is Arabella.”
Arabella extended a languid hand which belied her searching look.
“The mud will wash off,” Nick explained dryly, “and the male facade. Have your maid prepare a hot bath. Then feed the girl and let her have a long rest. I shall sup with you tonight. I expect to see a complete transformation.”
“You take a great deal for granted, Nick,” Arabella said with a shrug.
“You can hardly deny that it is my prerogative, Arabella.” Arabella raised her splendid eyebrows. Her voice had a sharp edge.
“Have you no orders for your new protégée?” she asked.
“None for the moment, except to eat and sleep. Caroline, I advise you to make a friend of Arabella. She can be a deadly enemy.”
As the door slammed behind him the two women stood transfixed, staring at each other. Their appraisal was at once hostile and sympathetic; they could be friends or enemies. Arabella recognised a rival, Caroline a sort of duenna ..... like the aunts, but younger.
Arabella gave the bell-rope an impatient tug. A hollow clangour reverberated through the nether regions of the house and presently a pale-faced, sleepy maid appeared.
“Prepare a bath for my guest,” Arabella commanded, “and see that the blue bedroom is aired. Tell cook we shall breakfast in my boudoir ..... on something substantial.”
She led the way upstairs, Caroline stumbling wearily behind her. On the landing she flung open a door.
“This is my sanctum,” she announced proudly, “you may wait here till your bath is ready.”
Caroline glanced at her muddy boots but Arabella ignored the gesture and led her into the warm, musky room. It was like an Aladdin's cave. Shut off from the wintry world by heavy velvet hangings, it seemed to have no relation to the world of rough roads, frosty hedges and spectral mists. It was a womb-warm interior of crimson and gilt, plushy with deep carpeting, plump cushions, deeply upholstered chairs; a bewilderment of jewel colours, it glinted with gilt and mirrors and oddly shaped ornaments. It was like a stage set for some sensuous drama.
For some moments there seemed nothing on which Caroline could rest her eyes. Then she saw the motif of theatre programmes above the mantel centred by a gilt-framed portrait in oils which dominated the whole room. The subject was a woman elaborately dressed standing erect and queenly. She recognised a younger version of Arabella. Arabella watched her expression with pleasure.
“Yes,” she said, “I was an actress.
When that portrait was painted I was the toast of
“It is very handsome. You must have had a great many admirers.”
Arabella tossed her head nonchalantly, but her smile evinced genuine pleasure. When she smiled she seemed younger. The thought struck Caroline that she was young enough to have been the actress for whom Nick Marsmain fought a duel. Arabella seemed to read her thoughts.
“Yes,” she said, “Nick Marsmain loved me too ..... in his way. He loved many women, yet has never found a woman he would make his wife. You may be that woman. We shall see. I wish you a better fortune than mine.”