CHAPTER 31

 

February slouched by in rain and mud. Stalemate followed the ghostly invasion. Lord Camden, the Irish Viceroy, had forecast a revolution after Bantry Bay, but it showed no sign of erupting. Pitt had other things than Ireland on his mind; he left the affairs of that kingdom to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, who maintained a calm amounting to indifference. Yet, while Dublin entered upon its last social fling, the Vice-regal Lodge at its glittering centre, conspirators met in warehouses and country houses to plot a rising, smithies glowed redly by night as deadly pike-heads were forged in secret, spies and agents for the French slipped in and out of the country, undetected. Agrarian magistrates, whose vengeance provoked more vengeance and probably more recruitment to the secret rebel army. Landlords wooed the military to ensure that their private property would be protected; Napoleon might loom large in English perspectives, to the Anglo-Irish he seemed a phantom with a phantom fleet. The gangs who felled timber for pike-shafts, raided for arms, wreaked vengeance on officials were the real bogies.

It was no wonder that dedicated officers like Gerard Seveny grew obsessed with petty activities. The Bantry Bay threat had seemed a blessed relief, but it had blown away in the blizzards of one of Europe's severest winters. Now it was back to patrolling the highways and byways, keeping the militia active and out of mischief, watching for signs, waiting for orders. Seveny fumed as he rode the rutted February roads, envying Nick Marsmain who had been recalled to Co. Kildare ..... Marsmain, the half-pay officer, who did more or less as he pleased, and seemed pleased enough to waste his time on some vague liaison duty when he might have commanded a regiment. Still, one never knew the day and who was he, Captain Gerard Seveny, to question the doings of the heir to Ballinmore? All he could do was smile favourably on his sister-in-law's portended marriage, adhere to his duty, and suffer rough roads and hard riding. Which gave him good reason to oppose any suggestion of coach travel for Caroline at this time of year. It was not that he wanted to delay her visit to Moybranach; the sooner she saw her Aunt Rose, the sooner, perhaps, she would gain consent to wed and relieve him of his responsibility; but should she take that “wrong turning” on the way to Athenry, it might rebound on him; he could not afford Marsmain’s enmity. Besides, Lucy needed Caroline's company; that was the best and simplest reason to delay her.

Nick Marsmain was in deadly earnest in his wooing. He had chosen Caroline and would have her. Land and lineage were the twin gods of his class; to maintain the lands and way of life, Malvinia’s dowry would have been expedient; to maintain the lineage in its traditional health and good looks, an heir was essential. It could be said of him, that he chose Caroline O'Shaughnessy for herself alone, for she had nothing else to bring him. In a time when few women were chosen for themselves alone, she was honoured. Lucinda, who had been likewise chosen, appreciated the honour and never missed an opportunity to press Marsmain's suit for him; he was not the man to plead humbly, though the time was growing late ..... perhaps short, if war with France broke out in earnest.

“I am thinking of myself as well as you, Caroline,” Lucy said, “I believe a fine wedding will be just the pick-me-up I shall need after the baby is born. Ah me, the time grows long and a trifle wearisome. How I look forward to my pretty gowns again ..... and the balls and assemblies ..... and visiting my sister, the future Lady Ballinmore. Lah, dear sister, I declare I am just a shade envious. Yet you hesitate. Beware of trifling. Nick's patience may run out. You may never again have such an offer.”

She wove a spell about Caroline; of the mansion in the Blackwater valley, of the handsome hall, the splendid stairs, the lofty ceilings, the decorated cornices, the chandeliers, the groaning tables, the bowing servants, the obsequious tenantry, of my lord and lady driving out in style among huzzahing peasants or riding by winding bridle paths the length and breadth of the Ballinmore estates. Always there was the picture of the wide open door, the guests, the music, the hospitality ..... and the lord and his lady, receiving graciously ..... and she, Caroline, in a position to influence the lives of her sisters, by succour or by patronage. It all fitted with the mural at Dunalla, its sequel and fulfilment; it was enough to turn the head of any seventeen-year-old girl. Caroline was deeply in love with the dream.

But there were other enticements. There was a letter from Gwendaline. Heads together, the two girls followed Gwen's generous, sprawling hand. The thin paper emitted a faint perfume, a touch of the other world in which their sister lived and moved.

Caroline must come to Dublin, it read. The spring season promised untold delights. Everyone was so relieved when the invasion scare passed. It had given the socialites a nasty turn. Just imagine, Gwen had been stitching warm garments for the troops sent to the western front!  Now good works abandoned, it was time for frivolity. Everyone was set on pleasure. It might be the last chance.

She wrote briefly of Millicent Picton. Since returning to Philipstown, the aunt had not settled down. She had taken to wandering in a crazed way ..... visiting old scenes and friends who had nigh forgotten her. She talked of returning to Dunalla, the only place where she was not a nuisance, she said. Poor Uncle Horace Picton, what a time he had with the anxieties of a resident magistrate in these lawless times; his wife was a nervous creature too, and Aunt Millicent tried her sorely. Perhaps we should do something.

“But darlings,” she went on “there is absolutely nothing I can do. The Breretons cannot have her here though she and Florida are school friends, not now with all the preparations for Theodosia's wedding. It is going to be a very lavish affair. You must come, Caroline; it will be your first big society wedding. Lucy's was pretty, of course, but just a simple occasion in a country church. Dosia is to be married in St. Anne's in Dawson Street, the church for fashionable weddings.”

“Oh Caroline,” Lucy exclaimed, “you should be married there. That would be a really grand society wedding. Oh my dear! But, poor Aunt Millicent. I really ought to do something for the poor old thing. But, in my condition ..... Gerry would be furious.”

“Of course he would, and rightly too,” Caroline said, apparently untouched. “Aunt Millicent can be a very disturbing person. You cannot risk the evil eye.”

“Whatever do you mean, Caroline?”

“Perhaps she kept her secret, but Aunt Millicent dabbles in black magic. Not that she can actually do anything; at least I hope not; but it's unnerving.”

She told Gwen the tale of the beheaded pigeon and of Aunt Rose's hints.

“Oh Caroline,” Gwen exclaimed, her face pale, “and Aunt Millicent was always so proper ..... not like Aunt Rose with her talk of geese and curses.”

Aunt Rose never invoked the dark powers beyond her control. She believed in the old geasa that protect the clan from outside interference. The stranger was always welcome by the chieftain's hearth so long as he left his own devils outside. There were things the stranger must not do, things he must not meddle with.

She told Gwen about the chieftain's chair and the cursing stone, and made her laugh with her account of Bridget's recitation, till the room echoed and Seveny, returning from a long ride, was reassured that Caroline really was good for his dear Lucy. What she needed was merry company. Without Caroline, the tea parties had begun to pall and he knew that his own obsessions made for poor companionship. But a diversion was to come from an unexpected source.

 

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