had been in poor health since her move to the handsome town house in
“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
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
“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.
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
“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
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.