It was late in the day when Caroline awoke. Though the remains of a fire still glowed in the grate and a stump of candle glimmered by the bedside, they did little to create a cosy atmosphere. The heavy curtains were drawn; the air was dank. The predominating dismal blue of the decor, the massive fumed oak furnishings, the skulking shadows and the musty odour combined to make the bedroom more like a burial chamber than a place of healthful rest. Over the mantel a huge gilt-framed mirror reflected the massive bedstead. She was but a diminutive waif on a vast tombstone. Enough of gloomy reflection; she threw off the coverlets and leapt to the floor.
Her travelling attire was gone, her sealskin and the bag which contained her blue dress and slippers. A great plushy purple wrapper was draped over a chair. It smelt of Arabella ..... musky and over-powering. Since there was nothing else, she draped it about her and made her way to Arabella's boudoir. A husky “Come in” greeted her knock.
Arabella raised magnificent eyebrows in mock astonishment as though a latecomer had interrupted her opening lines. The room was more than ever like a stage set, and the principal actress, groomed and gowned, sat serenely at its centre. Her elaborately coiffeured head, rouged lips and cheeks, her flowing green satin gown and innumerable tinkling bracelets, even her pose seemed copied precisely from the portrait above the mantel.
“Ah, dear Caroline,” she greeted, appraising the unlikely figure in the purple robe, “you have slept well. Now it is time to make you 'presentable' as Captain Marsmain requested. He may arrive at any moment.”
If Arabella intended that she should be caught at a disadvantage, Caroline would have none of it. Fanny had ironed the creases out of her blue dress, and this she insisted on wearing despite Arabella's offer of more gorgeous plumage. She refused to have Arabella’s maid help with her hair. Her old blue silk clung sweetly as a caress. Reassured, she picked up the silver-backed brushes laid out on her dressing table and brushed her hair till it shone, then bound it with a blue ribbon. She bit her lips and patted the colour into her cheeks till the gilt-framed reflection satisfied her. A fig for Arabella, she thought, walking tall and proud in her worn slippers.
As she entered the boudoir, Marsmain rose to meet her. He took her hands in his. His eyes feasted on her. How she pleased him, this artless, lovely girl. Arabella missed nothing.
“Well,” she said, “I did my best; but she would insist on wearing that old dress.”
“I'm glad she did,” Nick replied, “it is my favourite.”
This was not the angry man of the previous night. His voice was gentle, his looks all of love and admiration. He slid his arm about Caroline's waist, holding her tenderly. Arabella flashed one look of malice, then resumed her gracious, theatrical smile. Off-handedly, she reached for the bell-rope.
“We shall sup here,” she announced. “I declare it is the only warm room in this wretched house.”
Her maid-servant appeared carrying napery and followed by a hired man who had been hastily rigged with ill-fitting, would-be livery. He drew a low table near the blazing fire and arranged settings in silver and crystal. Presently the dishes arrived, piping hot and aromatic with spices. The wine was poured.
“An excellent choice, Arabella,” Marsmain commented. “A splendid vintage. Of course, my father always keeps a fine cellar. You have acquired a discerning palate. I'm sure he appreciates that. My mother took no interest in the good wine of life.”
“I trust she is well?” Arabella asked politely.
“Not at all well, I fear. The move to
“Quite unlike Lord Ballinmore. He always liked a full life ..... had no wish to bury himself in the country.”
“Even there he provided himself with distractions!”
“You include me in those distractions, I presume. I am not a mere distraction. Your father needed me. I gave up my career on the stage for him He hated to see me making an exhibition of myself. He wanted me to be a lady.”
“Alas Arabella, you will never be Lady Ballinmore.”
It was spoken smoothly, but the words found their mark. Arabella's glance was a sabre thrust. She collected herself, answered softly:
“I never hoped to be Lady Ballinmore. I had hoped to be a lady. But, in this small town, no. My lord's carriage calls at my door. They bow and scrape to him. I am ignored. They whisper behind their hands.”
“You are an ambitious woman, Arabella.”
“And you, dear Nicholas, have no
ambition. At your age, you are content with a mere captaincy when you should
command a regiment ..... still
riding the roads of
“I am at war. The French have attempted an invasion only a few miles from here. Who is to defend the country if every soldier leaves?”
“Or defend your precious inheritance?”
“Both. And why not?
The lands are mine ..... and
“There are those who deem it impossible to defend both at the same time. Have you never thought to join the United Irishmen? Lord Edward would appreciate your assistance, no doubt.”
“You jest, Arabella.
Lord Edward may follow his own delusions. I must stand with my kin. What would
“The devil wind blew the handsome liberators off course. Who knows, if they had landed .....”
Arabella's smile was provocative. Oh devil woman! Like so many women, only too ready to embrace a romantic enemy. And Caroline, eating with a healthy appetite, glowing with life, sitting so near him that their thighs touched, was she too a traitor at heart? Would she run eagerly to the arms of a handsome stranger? The thought maddened him more than anything Arabella could say.
“I do not wish to continue this wrangle, Arabella,” he said decisively, “it is of no consequence. With your permission, I would speak to Caroline alone.”
“You have no need of my permission in your father's house, Nick. Unfortunately there is no private apartment aired ..... except the blue bedroom ..... if you consider it a proper place.”
“I have no more regard for propriety than you. That ghastly chamber will serve.”
He led Caroline to the blue room. There the fire had not been renewed and the last embers were dying. The light of one candle scarcely relieved the gloom.
“Egad, what sepulchre!” he exclaimed, “enough to cool any man's ardour in troth. Or his anger. I am angry, Caroline.”
“She means nothing. What she says means nothing. I am angry with you.”
“With me, Nick,” she asked, frightened by his changed expression, “why with me?”
“Need you ask? You must prepare to answer rather than ask. I must know the truth. Promise me that you will answer truthfully.”
“I promise ..... as far as I can.”
Though she had turned pale, she did not tremble. He noted the stubborn line of her jaw, half hating, half admiring her resistance.
“Very well, tell me how you came to be hiding in a deserted church at ?”
“I was not hiding, Nick. I was sheltering, as you did the previous night”.
“Sheltering. Had you not adequate shelter in your sister's house? Why did you leave it ..... under false pretences, as far as I can gather?”
“There are things I cannot explain to my sister. She is a married woman.”
“Things her husband must not know?”
“Things that are not his concern.”
“Concerning your precious brother. Oh, I have heard of him from Captain Ferriter. I should have thought his movements were very much Seveny's affair.”
“My loyalty is to my brother.”
“Then you had an assignment with him. Fortunately he failed to keep it.”
“For you. Fortunately for him also, perhaps.”
“There was a body washed ashore at Bantry. It wasn't .....”
“It was not Fergal. You may meet some other time.”
“Would that we could meet in happier circumstances ..... as gentlemen ..... and friends. I have a request to make of him.”
“A request ..... of Fergal?”
“For his sister's hand in marriage He is your guardian, I presume. Or has he abdicated that responsibility?”
“I am sure he never assumed it. I would like to think of him as my guardian. I have none other.”
“You shall have Caroline, will you marry me?”
The question was as unpremeditated for him as it was for her. She did not answer, but he saw tears well in her eyes. Yet not for a moment did she lose that dignity and unmistakeable courage that so fascinated him. She would thwart and anger him, yet he must always admire her. She had no false coyness, no flirtatious ways, none of the carefully schooled 'ladylike' ways of which he was heartily sick. If someone must tame this wild, lovely creature, then that someone must be he; the thought enchanted him. Even how, the fact that she hesitated to answer him, drove him wild with desire. He gathered her in his arms and felt her strong, warm young body yield to his embrace without fear or dissemblance.
“You will marry me, my darling,” he whispered, holding her close, caressing her, touching her face and hair, “we were made for each other, Caroline. We were predestined to meet. You know that, my little love.”
This was not Nicholas Arthur Barnsby Marsmain, heir to Ballinmore, the man who took what he wanted from life; his old acquaintances would have scarcely recognised him. But to Caroline, he was the man on the horse who had come to rescue his maiden ..... the man she had dreamed of ..... the father, the brother, the lover in one; in short, he was the personification of all the human relations she needed and missed. She was his to do as he pleased with. Though she gave no answer, he knew he had won her. But, too soon, he sought mastery, not of her body but of her mind.
“I must ask you one thing,” he said abruptly, “how did you learn in advance that the French fleet was expected and at Bantry?”
She drew away from him, her face cold and stubborn again.
“I had it from a friend,” she replied quietly.
“A friend? Or a conspirator?”
“I said a friend.”
“Your brother's friend also, I must assume?”
“You assume rightly.”
“Which makes him a conspirator. Don't you know how dangerous such a friend may be? To consort with the enemy is an act of treason Perhaps you are too young and innocent to understand the implication. But, surely you can understand the personal risk for you ..... and for me. You would not be guilty of betrayal?”
“The O'Shaughnessys have never betrayed their country,” she answered, proudly, “nor do they betray their friends and lovers. You will have to trust me.”
His face flushed with anger. His eyes grew hard.
“As my bride, you will take a vow of obedience.”
To his consternation, she laughed ..... threw back her head, tossing her auburn hair, filling the solemn room with youthful scorn.
“In your society, how many wives obey their husbands?” she asked mockingly.
“In small matters, very few, in really serious affairs, most do, implicitly.”
“Then it depends what they consider serious. When I marry, I will love with all my heart; that will be very serious.”
She was gentle and winsome again. What she had said was sincere and, for the time being, seemed sufficient. He could question no more. Instead he laughed as though the whole episode was no more than a prank.
“But fie,” he said, “Arabella must grow concerned for your honour. Tomorrow morning you shall catch the mail to Fermoy. I will see you there. I must talk with Lucinda ..... and Seveny. “
He pressed the fare into her hand, then took her in his arms again. One last kiss and he was gone.
As she drifted into sleep, his kiss still warm on her mouth, she heard his voice raised in rebuke:
“No Arabella, you cannot trick me into that betrayal. I will have a virgin for my bride. No man's whore ..... not even my own ..... shall bear my son.”