From ancient times Athenry had been the radial centre of many trails. A traveller could take almost any road and follow it to a significant terminus. From the moment that Caroline settled into the stuffy interior of the Dublin Mail she felt the apprehension and exc­itement of a first-time traveller; this time she was venturing into unknown territory, and alone.

“You'll be back,” Aunt Rose had said, hiding the wish in curtness.

“You'll be back,” Conn said, hardly daring to meet her eyes lest he discover his tears.

“Please God, you'll be back,” Martin Drynan said as he handed her into the coach. “Please God you will, for Conn's sake. He'll never love another woman the way he loves you; maybe no other man will love you as he does. I know the way he's made. He's like myself.”

Hemmed in, alone, with the cloaked and muffled fellow-travellers, Caroline fingered the purse Martin Drynan had thrust into her hand at parting. It was more than money; it was a symbol of that unquestioning generosity which surrounded her Aunt Rose. Aunt Rose who had married the man who loved only one woman, had a freedom few women knew. If she had no child, she had everything else a woman of her time could have. Was Conn really like his father? Would it have been so bad to be queen of Moybranach, to ride with the Galway Blazers, to be the belle of many a hunt ball? To be loved truly, passionately for a lifetime?

Her mind settled for comfort on the last image of Athenry; the 15th Century market cross with its engravings of a crucifixion on one face and a virgin and child on the other. In the bustle about the stage coach, it had stood serene for centuries, a symbol of pain and hope.

As the coach rocked and swayed along the road to Mullingar, she focussed her thoughts on the city with its wide streets and fine buildings, its hurrying crowds of strangers. She had sent a message to Gwen. Would it have arrived in time? If no one met her, would she be able to find her way to Merrion Square; what a green country girl she was! The very thought of the city made her yearn for the sophisticated company of Nick Marsmain. If only he were by her side, the knight errant in the flesh. Her life had conditioned her to accept arrogance, even brutality as part of manly heroics. Owen belonged to the humble poor who were never heroes. In Hugh Ro she had seen the truly gentle man; there was nothing humble about him, but he was a poet which made him different, as a wandering friar might be; the poet and the priest were not judged by the normal standards. Fergal?  What of him? She had never stood far enough off to see him as he was. He was nearer than anyone, unknown but yet so near; the circlet of gold about her thigh was like a handclasp on the bone.

So passed the long dull day. At noon they made a stop at a coaching inn. Towards dusk a steady drizzle set in. Soon the coach was splashing through puddles and pot-holes. The passengers sank into a resigned stupor. They were roused by a sudden jerk as the horses were reined to a halt.

“Confound these roads!” a passenger exclaimed. “Every time I travel by the Mail I wish most profoundly that the Grand Canal was completed. How pleasant it will be to glide in comfort across Ireland from the Shannon to the city. That is what I call luxury. Have you ever travelled .....?”

The coach door was flung open, cutting short the question. They caught a glimpse of a figure swathed in a long, dark cloak, hat drawn low, collar raised to hide his face; only the glint of his eyes could be seen. In his gloved hand they glimpsed a pistol.

“Get out all of you,” he commanded gruffly.

“I thought the days of highwaymen were past,” someone muttered.

“Not quite ..... not yet,” came the gruff reply.

The highwayman had at least two companions. As he stood guard, pistol in hand, they made a rapid search of the coach and made the passengers turn out their pockets. Money and valuables, reluctantly displayed, were either ignored or restored almost at once. The travellers, relieved of nothing but their anxiety, were ordered back into the coach. All except the one female. A 'runaway' the protesting coachman was assured. A hand clasped firmly over Caroline's mouth stifled her protest. Two pairs of hands restrained her.

“Fetch her baggage!” the gruff voice commanded, “we have a carriage here.”

In spite of her struggles she was bundled into a waiting vehicle; the door was slammed shut. The carriage appeared to be empty. She could see nothing in the dark interior. There was a murmur of voices, but she could not make out what her captors were saying. It seemed to satisfy the coachman for presently she heard the crack of a whip, the sound of hooves and the rumble of wheels as the Mail moved off. Almost immediately the carriage started and soon was travelling at a smart pace. She appeared to have a mounted escort; there was the sound of many hooves. It was not going to be easy to escape. It was easy enough to sit still for the carriage was well sprung and sumptuously upholstered. The gentle swaying motion was restful after the cramped discomfort of the Mail ..... soporific, in fact. There was a delicate, pervasive scent of some rare perfume; she could forget her dilemma and sleep and dream of exotic gardens.

Presently she became aware that she was not the sole occupant. There was a faint rustle, a muted cough, what sounded like a suppressed giggle.

“Well Caroline, do you find this mode of travel agreeable? I shan't believe you preferred the Mail Coach.”

The husky, low-pitched voice was familiar. A soft hand was laid on hers. There was a whisper of silk, a touch of fur. It must be .....  

“Oh Gwen!” she exclaimed, “Gwen!”

Then she was in her sister's embrace, a strong, soft embrace of affection, extravagant with perfume and fur and the touch of small, delicate hands. They clung together, laughing, till Caroline felt the tears start.

“But why, Gwen, why?” she gasped.

“For fun, Caroline. You like adventures, don't you? And to make sure you didn't lose your way, of course. You weren't frightened?”

“At first, yes; but nobody hurt me; in fact they were quite gentle. Who are they?”

“Actors darling. I persuaded them to play the part. They’re very dear friends. We plotted the kidnap last night, after your letter arrived. You see we're all staying at Morry's country home ..... Lord Moreton's, I mean. He is a great patron of the arts ..... likes to give the players a holiday in the country now and then.”

“And you?”

“Hostess, my dear. Morry has neither sister nor mother nor maiden aunt. I fulfil their roles to the best of my ability.”

“The role of wife, Gwen, would not that be better?”

“Perhaps. But please let us talk about your affairs. Lucy has told me some things; but her letters are so peppered with social anecdotes, questions on fashion, exclamations ..... you know Lucy's way ..... I never get a complete story. One thing she has made clear: the handsome Captain Arthur Nicholas Marsmain, soon to be colonel of Huzzars, heir to the barony of Ballinmore is gone mad with love for my young sister. It's true Caroline, I cannot see you, but I feel you blush.”

As they travelled on, Caroline told her story, leaving out only those episodes that were too personal and precious to herself. Gwendaline encouraged her to tell it lightly. They laughed a great deal over the duel between the aunts. Then Caroline grew grave.

“Poor Aunt Millicent!” she said. “Why didn't you come for her burial, Gwen?”

“I should have, but I did not get the news in time. I had to chaperone Dosia on a trip to Waterford with her betrothed; at least, I was supposed to chaperone; in fact it was I who needed chaperoning; you don't know how lecherous an old man can be with a dull marriage ahead of him and a light woman like me available.”

“But you're not light Gwen.”

“Perhaps light-seeming. My flirtatious manner, darling!”

The midnight flight, the Fermoy welcome party, the day of hunting were all recalled for Gwendaline's amusement. Caroline barely touched on the Bantry Bay episode, treating it, as seemed fitting, like another harmless adventure. She could hardly believe her own frivolity; it was the effect her sister had on her.

“Do you always find life amusing, Gwen?” she asked.

“I don't FIND it so; I treat it so; otherwise it might break my heart. But please go on, Caroline.”

The encounter with Arabella delighted her. She knew Arabella very well, especially by repute; but there were things she would never tell Caroline.

“Who is Arabella?” Caroline asked.

“I can never be quite sure. Everyone has a different story. It seems she was brought up in a house of pleasure at Ringsend. She used to dance and sing to entertain the gentlemen ..... sailors mostly ..... when she was quite a child. They brought her baubles and sweetmeats. She was quite an attraction, and madam valued her highly, and took very great care of her ..... as though she were her own child. She had ambitions for her, some of which were realised when Arabella took the stage in Dublin.”

“Whose child was she?”

“She was the child of some woman in the west. She was brought to madam as a baby by a travelling merchant ..... at least that is one story. It is said the traveller handed over a fat purse for her keep. Madam was his friend, he visited her establishment every time he was in Dublin ..... kept an eye, presumably.”

“But who .....?”

“You will admit she is quite remarkably handsome ..... tall and stately ..... quite distinguished ..... and very overbearing, like some grand, impoverished queen who cannot forget her ancestry ..... not that I think she knows her true ancestry. If you overlook her foreign colouring, is there anyone she reminds you of?”

“Aunt Rose.”

“Yes, Aunt Rose. I believe she is the child Aunt Rose bore to the dashing Spanish sailor ..... the master of the ship that used to put into the creek below Dunalla. You have seen the smuggler's caves; they used to be full of Spanish wine, great barrels of it.”

“The smuggled wine that the Ferret made his fortune from?”

“Yes. There was a sound reason why he never betrayed our father.”

“And the Spanish captain betrayed Aunt Rose!”

“That we shall never know. Maybe he meant to marry her. His ship was lost in Biscay Bay.”

“Poor Aunt Rose!”

“Not so poor Aunt Rose. She had romance ..... wild moonlit nights of climbing out of Dunalla ..... wild nights in the arms of her dusky lover; there are few ladies of rank in Ireland who have had so much wild love. I hope it is all true; I pieced it together as best I could. Let's leave it as it is.”

There was a short silence; then Gwendaline asked:

“Do you really love Nick Marsmain, Caroline? He is completely infatuated ..... cannot wait to wed.”

“I do not want to be rushed.”

“What if his ardour cools?”

“Gwen, do you really want to see me marry in haste?”

“No, Carrie; I want you to myself a while. There is so much to show you, so much to see; you have so much to learn, though, maybe, you would be better not learning it. The hazards of fashionable drawing rooms can be as grave as any. It will not be easy to play the role of my lady. The future Lady Ballinmore will have to do as her lord says, accept his judgement. You met Nick's mother ..... a model of formality, wouldn't you say?”

“She looked ill ..... and tired. And her eyes ..... she seemed to see ghosts.”

“I know, Carrie. I'd hate to think you ever looked like that.”

“But Nick is not so formal as his father ..... quite happy-go-lucky.”

“Young noblemen usually do as they please. Nick, especially, has always done so. But the family code must be observed. Wives have a place to fill. In a way, they have a lot of freedom, but they must observe the formalities, keep up the facade of propriety. It often means putting manners before morality. A well-bred lady knows how to tell a bare-faced lie without a blush, or to cut an old friend dead without being impolite.”

“Is it possible that I shall learn to do these things?”

“Too possible, my sweet sister. You may find there is ease in dissembling. You can have great liberty so long as you are not found out.”

“Fergal!” she gasped, suddenly remembering.

“You must not breathe his name ..... nor remember him. He belongs to another place ..... another time. He may make what he wants to of his life. So must you. To me, Fergal is a mirage, not a brother; why I hardly ever saw him.”

Gwendaline had said all she was going to say about Fergal. Her next question was about Lucy. What a relief!