Lady Ballinmore had been in poor health since her move to the handsome town house in Merrion Square. Though advised to remain in Dublin, where the best physicians were, she pined for her country home. Perhaps the change would do her good. Ballinmore Castle was opened up, aired, and made ready. As she mounted the familiar steps, she turned and looked over the wide lawns and woodlands, watched the sunlight dance on the artificial lake, smelt the green mossiness of spring, she told her lord:

“I shall never leave it again ..... never, though I live a hundred years.”

Entering the great hall with its blazing log fire, its winding stair and high, ornamented ceiling, she felt uplifted. For a few days she revived, taking a feverish interest in the conservatory and gardens, sniffing out dampness, ordering the mending of tapestries, keeping men and maids busy with her fretful commands. Her restless activity prompted Lord Ballinmore to suggest an assembly or entertainment to take her mind off housekeeping. The prospect pleased her and she entered into his half-formulated plan with enthusiasm.

“After all,” she said cryptically, “I may as well enjoy my own wake.”

By descent, Louisa Ballinmore was of the old Irish nobility which had long ago mixed, married and merged with the Norman, and English families. She had a deep, abiding love of her country and its multi-culture. She would have a full-blooded Irish entertainment, as she envisaged it. Invitations were sent out. Wandering minstrels were summoned to perform, as were other locals who had some talent to offer. The local garrisons were ready to oblige. So was the celebrated Arabella de Rosas. She had never actually been the toast of Dublin, but had frequently understudied more celebrated performers; a “character” in her own right, her exotic appearance, dress and name, appealed to Dublin audiences who always had a preference for imported talent. For her this invitation to perform at Ballinmore was a chance to make a debut in south-western society. She meant to make it in style with all the privilege she could claim. Insisting that she must be present during the final preparations and rehearsals, she extracted a house-guest invitation from Lady Ballinmore. Lady Ballinmore was beyond caring that her husband's mistress should come to stay. So this oddly assorted pair set out to bring warmth and lightness to the winter of the west.

The date was set for late February. A few of the elite were persuaded to abandon the delights and comforts of the capital in order to be present, for the most part the assembly would consist of lesser folk: clergy, physicians, squires and officers from small garrisons. Much surprise and excitement was aroused by the prospect of meeting the count and countess, on their own ground; bows and curtsies were practised, moth-balls shaken from fine array, manners polished.

The house in Steeple Street was a flurry of gowns and fans and slippers, of scent and rustling parcels arriving by the Dublin Mail. Lucinda was in her element.

“It's so splendid,” she said, “that Gerry's parents were so taken with the thought of being grandparents that they decided to raise his allowance. The coach helped too ..... made them see how well Gerry and I could look, given a decent equipage.”

Annie, assisted by Maureen were hard put upon getting the ladies decked for the evening, stitching and ironing, curling and pinning, taking to pieces and putting together till even Lucinda was reasonably satisfied. Lucinda had to be assured and reassured that, if her waist had expanded, it was more than made up for by the beauty of her complexion. “Like a peach, ma'am,” Annie iterated till she half believed what she heard and could see quite plainly in her looking glass. And there was absolutely no doubt that her ankles looked trimmer and feet daintier than ever.

So the blue-green coach with its prancing horses took the road on a starry night. Lucinda chattered excitedly as a child, Seveny was grave and taciturn, Caroline abstracted. She knew Nick would not be present and there was a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach as she contemplated arrival at her “dream” house, unaccompanied; the grandeur of the place cast a shadow before. The thought of Arabella in no way comforted her.

“Who is Arabella do Rossas?” she asked of Lucinda.

Lah my dear, how should I know?” Lucinda responded, not caring. “Some actress creature that his lordship picked up in Dublin. She's no more foreign than I am; she assumed the name to gratify Dublin audiences, they prefer something exotic.”

“Was she very famous?”

“Not at all famous ..... infamous perhaps. She must have been fairly competent, now I come to think of it; she understudied the great Madam Mara and Mrs Millington, both celebrated singers.”

The great house blazed in lights from its wooded setting. Before they entered, Caroline cast one swift glance at the gloomy keep beyond the stable yard. As before, one window set high in the wall, seemed to blink a bleary eye ..... a trick of reflection, of course ..... of course. But they must enter and be received, as before by my lord and his lady. Lady Ballinmore had insisted that her guests should be greeted in customary fashion, but the strain of standing erect, of smiling to order, of repeating the formal welcome was almost more than she could endure. She was a very sick woman; even since the ball, she had wasted; her thinness was startling, and her face paler and more mask-like than ever. Caroline felt a shudder run down her spine when the claw-like hand clasped hers and the shadow-ringed eyes were, for a moment fixed on her own young flushed face. It was the greeting of a spectre.

Lord Ballinmore had grown rounder and redder. Large and lusty and handsome, he extended a mellifluous welcome. Caroline flushed to feel his greedy eyes run over her appraisingly, to feel the clasp of his hand that held hers for just a moment too long. She wished she had not worn the green velvet dress again; perhaps he might not have remembered her in another. She felt his following gaze as she moved away; it seemed to detach her from the throng in which she wanted to get lost. Lucinda was no help in seeking obscurity; as usual, she invited a flutter of interest wherever she moved. She looked uncommonly beautiful in her pink satin gown and Seveny, whether he would or no, attracted attention in his braided uniform.

There was so doubt that Lucy was the queen. And Arabella, in all her splendour, was the belle. Among the shuffling, chattering, guffawing throng they moved, each in her own way, majestic and admired. And like a haunting, ghostly queen the lady in whose honour the party had assembled, moved, in her own way, majestic and alone, already, it seemed, supplanted by the belle of the ball. Caroline was swept with a wave of sympathy for the lonely, tragic woman who clung to life and the rituals of her position. She could feel sympathy; in a way, she felt as lonely and isolated as the lady herself. The smile that Arabella flashed her across the room did nothing to reassure her; it was a look of demonic triumph.

Arabella had arrived in style. She wore a flowing gown of green and gold that shimmered and rustled like the skin of some exotic snake. About her pale forearm a wrought gold snake with emerald eyes, writhed and glinted. Her luxuriant hair was piled high in the fantastic shape of some barbaric crown.

“How tall she is,” thought Caroline. “How like Aunt Rose in one of her devil moods. But far more beautiful ..... and evil.”

She missed Nick dreadfully. Without him, this great house was haunted. There were none with whom she wanted to converse. A few faces she thought she recognised from the long-ago hunting episode, did not recognise her, which was a relief. She was glad when the conversation ended and the company took their places to enjoy the entertainment.

The programme was various in content and quality. Some of the local artistes were downright mediocre, but heartily applauded because they were familiar. The roving minstrels with their harps and fiddles were out of place and, though they strove hard to please, were constrained and unnatural; the comedy sketches performed by garrison casts were fair to middling. Everyone waited for the great Arabella de Rossas.

Given the whole stage to herself, with a captive and eager audience, Arabella was determined to make an impression, and this she did. It seemed to those few who had had the privilege of hearing the divine Mrs Millington and the brilliant Madam Mara that she excelled them both in appearance and performance. The ballad farce which had such a following in Dublin would have been agreeable to the company present; those excerpts chosen were more than agreeable, for some had feared a more highbrow performance. Arabella was in her element. Mare's bravura never throbbed with sweeter intensity in the song she had made famous: “Fly Soft Ideas”, “Sweet Bird”, or the universal favourite, “Auld Robin Gray”. Encores grew wilder and more urgent as the entertainment progressed. What Arabella lacked in talent she made up for in expression and gesture. Her performance was a tour de force.

After Arabella, supper. The crowd drifted away to feast on the cold comestibles laid out in profusion on silver platters. Soon all were so engrossed in the enjoyment of the feast that none, it seemed, noticed when Caroline drifted away. In the peace of the library she was alone. If only Nick would appear so that they could sup together as they had done so long ago, it seemed, at Ardcullen; without him, all the splendour was empty; the whole place had an air of desolation which may have been more of her mood than of the signs apparent in the worn tapestries, the cracked ceiling, the scuffed rugs, the general shabbiness. She had not long to ponder. A light footstep was approaching. She turned her attention to reading the titles on the leather-bound spines arrayed on massive shelves.

“You are interested in books, I see,” Lady Ballinmore said softly. “I wonder if you will find anything of interest among these.”

“I am not sure, my lady. They appear to be very learned works.”

“Never judge by the covers, my dear. Some ..... indeed most of these ..... are quite deceptive. You are welcome to peruse any volume you choose. It will make little difference which. Why not have a look?”

Caroline took down a book at random. It was quite empty. The shelves were filled with empty books. In this respect the library at Ballinmore was just like that of many a country mansion at the time ..... women could not, or did not, read; men had better, more manly things to do. Caroline, unaware of that custom, was staring at the empty book, astounded. Lady Ballinmore drew very close to her. Her voice was husky with hidden pain or was it disillusionment.

“Things are not always what they seem,” she said, “nor are people. This house has many empty spaces.”

It was the last time she was to see the Lady Ballinmore. Next day came the news of her death ..... in her sleep, peacefully.