Caroline halted in the arched doorway. In the rushlight glimmer, her face was pale, her eyes stormy as a winter sea. Millicent remembered the storm of Turlough's anger and quailed before the look. But the servants must not see her falter before this slip of a girl.
“Do come and have supper, Caroline,” she invited.
Maureen set the tureen before her. She picked up the ladle and began serving. Still Caroline made no move. The sight of Aunt Millicent sitting in the chieftain's chair disturbed her. Only last night Fergal had sat there. A year ago Turlough had sat there for the last time and she, at his right hand, had basked in warmth deeper than hearth-fire. They sat till the embers died, she playing favourite airs on the harp like David comforting Saul. Later she heard him ride out into the blustery night. And in the morning they found him, fallen as the mighty Saul had fallen. After his quiet burial, Aunt Rose took her home to the big, homely farmhouse near Athenry, which had been her home for so much of her childhood. But spring drew her back to deeper roots in the old keep of Dunalla. She was free there till Aunt Millicent arrived to “take that wild child in hand.” There was a lot to be said for the future Millicent Picton offered her, not least that she should shine in the social world her two sisters graced. Then came Fergal, swiftly and silently, from the sea, and they supped together and walked by the moonlit sea to the spot where the chieftain was buried. And there was a troth between them and gold on her thigh and gold under the bloody stone.
“I hope the broth's to your likin', ma'am,” Maureen intervened, breaking the silence, flattering Millicent, coaxing Caroline with a sideways look, “it's the best I could make with one skinny rabbit and a handful of herbs.”
“It's well enough, I'm sure,” Millicent replied stiffly.
The sniffy reply, in the circumstances, was funny: this curious charade played out in a semi-ruin on the rocks at the edge of the world. With a sudden smile, Caroline broke her stance and moved forward to take her place at Millicent's right hand. Millicent passed her a steaming bowl, seductive with savoury invitation. Maureen handed the griosach-roasted potatoes on a silver dish. Hunger was king for the time being. It would have been as well to let things be at that, but Millicent felt she must say something if only to exculpate herself.
“I sat here to be closer to the fire. I feel the chill between my shoulder blades ..... and no wonder in this icy room. Maybe you think you should sit at the head of the table now.”
“No, Aunt Millicent. I am not another Grace O'Malley.”
With a brief nod Millicent dismissed Maureen. The bright eyes saw too much; the girl smiled too readily; there was a hidden defiance in the smile. Even now, that defiance revealed itself.
“Will that be all, Miss Caroline?” Maureen asked, ignoring the dismissal.
Caroline responded with a nod and a smile, too busy with her meal to answer. It nettled Millicent to sense the empathy between the girls, the way they read each other's every nuance. It seemed to threaten her for she had no personal experience of such intimacy with the “servant class” ..... no experience of a childhood as close to the roots as Caroline's had been. She could not quite accept servants as people; they were creatures who responded to orders, or should respond without question or comment. Of course one must treat them well; like valued horses, they needed fodder and stabling and light, firm hands on the reins. This would not do. Nor would this food-engrossed silence. At any civilized table, there must be appropriate conversation. Where had they dropped the thread?
“Grace O'Malley; she was a chieftainess, wasn't she?”
Between spoonfuls, Caroline paused to nod assent. Intolerable manners!
“I have heard some tall stories of her prowess,” Millicent persisted. “She seems to have been the heroine of the rebel west. Queen Elizabeth called her over the coals for her behaviour. When she went to meet the Queen, I have heard that she refused to bow the knee. Imagine a barbarian chieftainess thinking to defy the divinely appointed monarch!”
“She not only thought to, she DID,” Caroline countered briefly, but Millicent could see her mind was not on the subject.
There seemed no point in talking generalities. They continued their meal to the crackle of logs on the hearth and the sibilant murmur of the tide in the estuary beyond the crumbling wall. The scene would have surprised a stranger. The glimmer of fire and rushlight, the shift of shadows, the isolation between earth, air and water, suggested a secret tryst of conspirators, a witches' coven, gamblers throwing dice with ghostly hands. Scarcely anywhere in Ireland at this late date would one find an ancient keep, inhabitable and inhabited, where two women would sit down alone to a normal meal.
The barbaric room remained as it had
been built, rugged walls bare as in their beginning except for a few ancient
weapons that gleamed evilly in the fitful light. Untouched by the gentler
climate of eighteenth century
Millicent was relieved to have her back to it now, and to the fierce mask that leered from empty eye-sockets above her head, as though the chair itself despised her. “In such bad taste!” she had often said. And the chair back mask defied her with a leer, and the wolf that lurked in the underbrush of the mural, eyed her with a wild contempt. She pretended she could never understand why Eleanor had been so childishly delighted with Turlough's barbarous whims when in fact they intrigued, while they terrified her ..... as did the stuffed wolf at the stair-foot. There was that in her nature that rose to the challenge of this wild place; she had to talk a great deal to remind herself of her gentility.
This girl's silences thwarted her. She felt, at times, that Caroline was escaping, as Turlough did, running away into the great spaces of fantastic dream ..... the dream she had by chance, forgone.
Caroline was lost in the mural. It was something outside the ordinary experience of her life, a dream that any young girl, obscured in a forgotten keep at the edge of the world, might have. It had been painted to please her father's whim. Of the many wandering minstrels he delighted to entertain during his episodic visits to Dunalla, one had shown a talent for drawing pictures for Caroline's amusement. Turlough unearthed his secret: he could paint better than he could sing. If the chimney breast were plastered smoothly, maybe he could paint the picture Turlough talked of. He had never executed so large a work, but he was a hungry man with a cold winter before him and little musical talent or gift of story-telling to buy him bed and board.
Owen, who could turn his hand to anything, plastered the chimney breast. While the plaster was drying, the painter went about the countryside gathering the materials from which he extracted his colours. Like the dyes that gave the rugs their vivid jewel colours, his paints were compounded of herbs and mosses, roots and lichens according to secret formulae, generations old. Turlough found him on his hands and knees behind a clump of furze, his eyes peering sharply from a tangle of grey hair. Like a wolf he was with his hungry face. Turlough nick-named him Mac Tire. He liked that, and let it be his name.
Turlough had brought his Eleanor home at last; to die in Dunalla where he asked her to wed. Reclining in her rocking chair she watched the painter and his skill entertained her over the declining autumn days. It was the last entertainment she had, but she was, as Millicent often put it jealously, “Easily pleased”.
Central to the picture stood the keep itself, grim and solitary against a background of stormy sea and distant jagged mountains, realistic and strong as the masks carved on the table apron. Then fantasy took over. By the massive door a knight in full panoply sat on a splendidly caparisoned horse. With one raised hand he saluted, or waved farewell, to a maiden who leant from a narrow window in the wall. Her unbound hair fell in a shimmering cascade over the grey stone-work. A trite medieval concept in itself, the picture might have been dull if the artist had spared his colours, or brash if he had overstated them. He had managed to suffuse the whole, somewhat crude picture with a gentle, glowing light.
Turlough thought the silent, grey man was a great amateur artist. He must sign his name. And the man signed in his own way; among the scrub at the base of the picture he painted a crouching wolf with a grin on its face that seemed to smile at the follies of humankind. That wolf appealed to the cynic in Turlough.
Replete now, Caroline studied the picture. Her cheeks glowed in the ruddy light of the fire; her eyes were soft as a dreaming sea. Millicent caught the gentleness of her expression; she was really very like beautiful, affectionate, feckless Eleanor. She could talk to her. But there was no time to lose. She was obsessed with a constant urge to win the minute; perhaps engendered by some premonition that her time was short. She could not wait for the right words, not any more. Her voice knifed the dreamy stillness:
“The party will be in full swing by now ..... at Ardcullen, I mean. To celebrate John's commission, I suppose.”
“Or Malvinia's debut,” Caroline suggested.
“Of course. She must be eighteen at least. A
plain little girl as I remember her, though I haven't seen her for years. Her
mother and I were such friends at Miss Dinkleford's
school. I was at her coming out ball in Lady Brussel's
“Nor many eligible suitors for what was left of the Clanburren fortunes.”
“Alas, there was very little left. Clanburren was a weak man ..... let things slip. It was well he had Mr. Ferriter, I should think. He was Clanburren's agent, wasn't he?”
“Yes. He managed the estate very well ..... as well as could be, with so much dissipated.”
“He got it all in the end ..... Hetty and the title deed.”
“Yes, if you must put it so crudely. Hetty was lucky to get a prosperous husband. Ferriter needed the aristocratic connection. He was an ambitious man. Not a bad fault.”
“If it was not pure greed. He got my father's land, too.”
“Your father gambled it away. If he had not, your prospects would have been better. Still, there are always prospects for a girl of looks and breeding.”
Caroline was not listening. She was seeing her father's proud, beaten face and Joe Ferriter's triumphant smile as they stood in the bawn settling the deal that mortgaged the last decent piece of O'Shaughnessy land. She had clutched her father's hand, shying away from the pale, sloe-eyed boy who sat on his pony and stared and stared at her while the two men struck the fatal bargain. She had felt a terrible apprehension that she was being sold to that sharp-featured man with hard eyes, and to his hard-eyed son.
“Maybe,” Joe Ferriter had said with a whinny, “it'll all come back into the family, Turlough. My boy here seems to have taken a fancy to your little girsha.”
It had thrilled her to see Turlough throw back his head with a smile. But his voice had been bitter:
“Your boy will not want a poor man's daughter for a wife. He'll be marryin' to better himself. The Ferriters are on the way up.”
It was plain that the O'Shaughnessys were on the way down. All that life of noble deeds, of honours won, of sparkling occasions was beyond the sea ..... it seemed beyond the bounds of probability. Dunalla was real, stark and forsaken. A great wave of loneliness swept over Caroline. Millicent was rambling on:
“Social life has improved greatly
since Deputy Townsend ordered the Viceroys to reside in
“For some,” Caroline murmured absently.
“For all who will, and can. Gwendaline and Lucinda were amenable; they have made good use of their advantages. Your mother would have been proud to see them shine in fine company. There is no reason why you should not do as well; you have looks, which are a woman's best assets. It is all a matter of taking the right steps in the beginning ..... getting noticed ..... winning favour with people of distinction. You WOULD like to dance at a ball in the Viceregal Lodge, wouldn't you?”
Caroline heard her aunt's talk through a dream. In the flames on the hearth she saw towering Gothic mansions, knights on noble horses, ladies drifting gracefully through magnificent brightly lit rooms, ascending and descending golden stairways. She could hear the music, smell heady perfumes, feel the smoothness of satin and the froth of lace.
“I would, Aunt Millicent,” she said gently. “I would like to wear satin and lace and dance at elegant balls. I would like to move in elegant company ..... hear the best music, be warm and admired. It's lonely here at Dunalla with Fergal beyond the sea, and Gwen and Lucy so far from me.”
“Poor child. Fergal should have stayed.”
“He will come back. I am sure he will come back.”
“To settle, I hope; and not as an
outlaw. Then you must make yourself ready. Let him see his favourite sister
grown to a beautiful, accomplished lady. Then he will see where his duty lies ..... here in
“France is his country too, Aunt Millicent. His mother was French.”
“Not a daughter of the
“Against his English enemies.”
“Hsh child! The English were never
“The Irish have seen them as such.”
“Misguidedly, but even the Irish are changing their tune. In olden times, it is said that the Anglo-Irish imitated the dress and speech and customs of the Irish, became 'more Irish than the Irish'. They intermarried and became one people.”
“Still ruled by
“For their good. The wisest of them can see that. Now they imitate English ways; they ride and hunt with the Anglo-Irish gentry, attend their assemblages gladly enough, when invited. Even your Uncle Drynan, Irish to the core, learnt to hunt with the gentry and do good business with the ancient foe. He is making a fortune supplying horses for the King's army now. Fergal could come to terms with his own destiny. Let us hope he sees the wisdom of it before it is too late.”
“I cannot see him bartering his dream
of a free
“For lands, then ..... a title to his rightful heritage ..... not this desolate rock, but the good land an Irishman could love without romantic pretension. He might recover the earldom James II conferred on his great-grandfather.”
“O'Shaughnessy, Lord of Dunalla! It sounds splendid. But the Ferret has all the
good land now. And Clanburren's
estates. A few magnums of wine that he smuggled from
“That will do, Caroline. It is not our business how Joe Ferriter won Hetty Claredale's affection or her father's land; what concerns us is the Dunalla inheritance. You know your father bartered it for silence?”
“Not gambling debts Aunt?”
“No. Your father was an outlaw. There
wasn't an illicit visit he made to Dunalla that his
life was not forfeit. Joe Ferriter guarded his secret
well. Maybe your father thought it was worthwhile to gamble away his demesne
for the sake of an occasional look at
There was a short, embarrassed silence; then Millicent plunged wildly: “You could win it all back if you married John Ferriter.”
“Indeed! There was a time when he might have thought that a good idea. He wouldn't even know me now.”
“If Fergal hadn't been here, I might have called on my old friend Hetty. You would have been at the ball. You might have renewed your acquaintance with John Ferriter.”
“Might! Might! Might! Oh, Aunt Millicent, I'm in no mind for might ..... or marrying John Ferriter.”
“In which case, my dear, you must come back to Philipstown with me. There is nothing for you here. Think about it, my dear child.”
“Yes, Aunt, I'll think ..... but not tonight.”
She yawned and stretched, a broad hint to Millicent that she had had enough for one day. It was time for bed. Lighting a taper from a guttering sconce, she moved towards the stair. Millicent Picton was left alone by the dying embers. The past inhabited the deserted chamber ..... memory of a rare night of feasting and music, a night of great daring and great risk for the outlaw who had come home to take a bride of his own countrywoman. She had waited on the wall-walk for Turlough to come to her. And he had not come. When she descended the dark stair, she heard laughter and applause and the clink of goblets. She saw from that arched doorway, the goblets raised to toast the betrothed: Turlough O'Shaughnessy and her sister, Eleanor. She had stopped, transfixed, watching Turlough clasp his darling Eleanor to him. The shrill of the piper's salute pierced her ears; the savoury smell of ox turning on the spit in the bawn was a stench of death; the laughter was a rattle in a dying throat.
Nobody saw her standing in the shadow, her face pale as a death-mask, nobody but Owen, trencher in hand, standing behind Turlough's chair. She never forgot the smile on his ruddy young face. She would not have believed that, at that moment, he pitied her. It might only have compounded her dislike of him. She had hated him since that moment. Ignoring him then she had advanced boldly to congratulate the newly-betrothed.