The sight of Owen surprised and gladdened Caroline. The message he brought put a swift, decisive end to doubt and delay. Dunalla called. To her surprise, Lucy, though sorry to let her go, made no attempt to persuade her. She saw the point of Aunt Rose's message. Of course the coach must be returned to Dunalla; if ever Fergal returned ..... she had only a vague notion of the brother she had scarcely ever seen, but, he was heir to whatever there was. Gerard would be glad to have the problem of the horses settled; they were too valuable for him to contemplate purchase, and a tremendous responsibility to maintain. He would be glad to see them go ..... glad to be rid of his responsibility for Caroline, if the truth were told.
“A good thing for Nick,” Lucy remarked, “I do think he has been rather neglectful of late. When you are gone, he'll know how much he values you. Never wait around for any man, my dear. You don't need to ..... and it's so undignified.”
So it was that Caroline returned to Dunalla. Her few remaining gold coins smoothed the way; they had a speedier and less eventful journey than previously for there was no need to hide; they were coming home.
“Boys, but I'll be glad to see my granny again,” Maureen said, excitedly. “You will be glad to see Dunalla, Miss Caroline. But you'll be missin' the handsome Captain Marsmain?”
“Maybe he'll be missing me, Maureen. Maybe he'll miss me more than he thinks.”
“Please God, Miss Caroline ..... please God he will. He'll be after you like a shot when he finds out you're gone. When the mournin' for his mother is over you'll be married ..... married in the height of style.”
“I'd like to be married in style, Maureen ..... if I marry at all.”
Maureen was astonished by her coolness. How dignified she could be; what a splendid lady she would be ..... the Lady Ballinmore. What a change had come over their lives since they left Dunalla and took the road to the south.
Owen whistled and sang as he drove through the greening countryside. The spring was coming, mild and lively; trees stirred with rising sap; birds flew in pairs; daisies and dandelions opened to the sun; winter-filled streams sang by the wayside; wind skipped, rustling the withered grass, twitching the sappy green.
On more than one occasion they
encountered small bands of militia, but the handsome equipage proved enough to
intimidate them; they touched their forelocks and let it pass. Once two uniformed officers galloped past them on the road.
The light was fading, but Caroline thought she recognised John Ferriter; he was on his way to Ardcullen
for a brief visit before joining
Off duty for the interim and with his
mind on higher things, he had no time for more than a cursory glance at the
coach proceeding sedately on its own business.
The disarming of
The coach moved on in deepening
twilight. The sun went down in a shimmer of orange. Then there was stillness
and the dark shapes of hills, rising black against a gunmetal sky. At last the
“It'll be somebody firin' the furze,” Maureen said without conviction. “It'll be Ferriter's men clearin' more ground for grazin'.”
Caroline was not reassured. Her eyes placed the source of the flame. “Maureen,” she said, “it's not on Ferriter's land. I believe it's Dunalla itself. But who would want to burn Dunalla but the devil himself ..... or his henchman? Oh. Bridget, God send you're safe. And Aunt Rose.”
“Sure they're safe, Miss Caroline,” Maureen said, her voice shaking. “They must be safe an' them together. The devil himself couldn't catch Miss Rose.”
Owen said nothing. Grim-faced, he urged the tired horses to a trot. Their eyes strained towards the plume of smoke and flame that rose from the old battlements.
Suddenly, silhouetted against the glow, a figure appeared high on the battlements. Like a bat it stretched black wings as though to fly. For a few moments it teetered uncertainly. Then it fell.
“Aunt Millicent!” Caroline screamed, “oh poor Aunt Millicent!”
The fire was dying now. They were in the bawn and there was Aunt Rose, her arm about old Bridget.
“Ah Caroline, so you came home ..... or to what's left of it. And you brought the coach and horses, Owen. Didn't I say you could travel the west safe and sound. Here Maureen, take your granny's arm.”
When Aunt Rose had first arrived, she had chosen to share Bridget's domain; it was cold above stairs and Bridget had always a good pile of turf by the hearth-side. The two women had an extended picnic of broth and tea and punch and whatever other comestibles Owen had foraged for them. Bridget was delighted to have Miss Rose back with her the way she used to be. Rose did not mind in the least having to sleep on Maureen's truckle bed. Day and night passed and the two could hardly tell one from the other, what with the chat and the poteen punch and the grey February weather outside which seldom tempted either forth. In quieter moments they listened for the sound of hooves. The peat stack dwindled and the poteen jar emptied, and February shifted into March.
One afternoon they heard the sound of hooves. From a spy-hole Rose watched the rattling post chaise draw up before the door. The passenger was a woman who stumbled under a weight of wraps. Millicent Picton! Rose stayed where she was, watching. The big door stood unbolted, the stuffed wolf waited at the foot of the stair. There was no warmth of welcome for the stranger, neither at the door nor in the empty chamber above, nothing but a scuttle of mice ..... or were they rats ..... and the blink of wary spiders suspended in shadowy corners. A grey haze filled the room ..... the cold March mist from the sea. The chieftain's chair stood empty, its carved masks grinning malevolently.
Millicent pulled the bell-rope. There was no response. Again and again she tried to summon a servant; but none came. She would not go below and investigate; servants should come when they were called. But, in these times, would they wait on the magistrate's daughter? She had never trusted Bridget, nor Maureen, nor Owen ..... nor any of them. The clang of the bell reverberated through the emptiness.
“God sakes, will she never stop?” Bridget muttered.
“Whether she stops or not, you're not answering,” Rose said firmly. “One move, and I'll be forced to restrain you. She has no business here.”
Millicent grew desperate. The chaise was gone. She was marooned in gathering dusk in this ghostly tower. The tide moaned in the narrow estuary below. She was suffused with an overpowering chill. She wrung her hands, shivering till her teeth chattered. She must have warmth and light. But how? The hearth was cold and empty, no kindling in sight. No use pulling the bell-rope.
She remembered the big bed with its pile of blankets and skins. She would be warm up there. Step by step she felt her way up the dark spiral stair, found the grand bedroom that once was the solarium. The solarium; surely some ancient sun-warmth lingered there.
The atmosphere was dank and cold; the big four-poster smelt of mildew. Beside it, on a little table, stood a candlestick; in it remained half the candle she had used to light her to bed on her last night here. The tinder box lay by. She struck a light with trembling hands. When the flame had taken, she raised the candlestick high and surveyed the room. By the cold hearth stood the remains of the pile of wood she had been using. She got some kindling together and lit a fire.
When the blaze was still more a promise than a glow, she stretched out her hands, but the feeble heat only increased her immense sense of chill. She piled on all the sticks and the few turves that were left. The sticks crackled merrily as a fool's laughter; the damp turf sulked. Neither did much to warm the air.
Filled with frustrated rage, Millicent began building a fire to defy all chill. She broke up the smaller pieces of furniture, tore the rugs, the blankets, the skins from her bed. With demoniac rage, she ripped up loose floor-boards, tried to break the huge bed apart. Her hands bled, but she took no notice. As the huge fire roared up the chimney, she burst into a fiendish laugh. A jackdaw's nest caught alight, its platform of dried twigs crackling like a witch's laugh. Dunalla was burning ..... burning; the cold grey tower was a-blaze.
The room was thick with smoke. Sweat streamed down her face. She choked for air. By the narrow stair she scrambled to the battlements. Like a black bat, she flapped her wings.
Below, in the bawn, she saw two foreshortened figures emerge. So that one was there all the time ..... that Rose O'Shaughnessy who never liked her. Well, she could watch her old home burning now ..... watch its dark secrets char and crumble to dust. Flames roared from the chimney stack as the jackdaws nest burned; sparks flew about her head. The whole place would soon be alight; the chieftain's chair, the feather bed where Turlough had loved her sister.
These thoughts flapped through her brain like maddened birds. Then, as the blaze began to die, she saw the phantom coach. Through the archway it was advancing. It was Turlough himself and his bonny bride. How dared she face their ghosts? She stumbled, clutched the empty air and fell.
It was Caroline who found her. Her neck was broken. She lay, wide-eyed, staring at the blue-black sky. Poor Aunt Millicent! But she had found warmth before she died.
The solarium was filled with smoke. The feather bed was smouldering. Millicent Picton would never know that the fire had died when she had died.
“Trying to warm herself, indeed,” Aunt Rose sniffed. “All hell it would take to warm her bones. Maybe she's warm enough now.”
“But Aunt Rose, it was horrible. Couldn't you have saved her?”
“I could neither stop nor save her, Caroline. Didn't she provoke the old spirits ..... bring down the family curse?”
Caroline was the only one to weep for Millicent Picton.