Caroline stood by the tall slit-window of her bedroom. Moonbeams fanned the inner shadow; outside it was bright as day; the tide susurrated restlessly in the estuary. It was no time for sleeping. In Aunt Rose's house at Athenry she had never gone to bed simply because it was bed-time. As long as there was good company, a song to be sung, a tale heard or a merry reel from an itinerant musician, life and light went on. The O'Shaughnessys wandered abroad by moonlight and in the dark of the moon. Many a time she had stolen from the keep to go running along the sands or swimming in the creek, alone or with Fergal when they both happened to be at Dunalla at the same time. But that was years ago and on his recent flying visit she had seen little of him and he seemed pre-occupied with some secret mission she could only guess at.
Last night they came together more closely than ever. After supper they walked to the grave where Turlough was buried. It lay in the shadow of a crumbling cairn near the ruins of an ancient monastery. This had been the burial ground of the O'Shaughnessys for many centuries, perhaps since pre-Christian times. In the moon-light its ruins and rocks cast grotesque pagan shadows.
Together they knelt by the grave where Turlough and his darling Eleanor lay at peace with the diverse and turbulent past.
When he was digging Turlough's grave Owen had disturbed the resting place of another. He unearthed the centuries old skeleton of a man. With intent to re-bury it decently, he covered the bones lightly, laying them as they must have lain in their original grave. He never spoke of his discovery. Not till Fergal came. Now Fergal shared his secret with Caroline.
He uncovered the dry bones reverently.
The frame lay staring from empty eye-sockets at the vast, starry sky. Pale
moonlight picked out a glint of gold. Ancient gold, finely wrought it was. It
was not unusual to find treasure in ancient burial places, though most of that
had been looted long since. Gold was once mined in
“Do you think he was a chieftain, Fergal?” Caroline asked in a whisper.
“He must have been, I think.”
“What should we do?”
“Our ancestors have lived here for many centuries,” Fergal said quietly. “This man may have been one of them. Whoever he was, he guarded his treasure a long time. I think he was keeping it for someone. It may have been for you and me. Do you believe that he would have wished us to have them?”
“I do, Fergal,” she whispered, fervently as a bride taking her vow.
In a strange, impromptu ceremony under the moon-silvered sky, the sea's old chant in their ears, they each bound a golden circlet about the left thigh. Fingers touching the slender bands, hands touching each other, they pledged a troth of remembrance.
“Whatever comes; where ever we are; whatever we do, I will remember.”
Caroline wept and clung to her brother and Fergal held her close, stroking her long flowing hair.
“Do not weep my little sister?” he murmured in her ear. “It is better that I should go. It is my duty now. But, I will return.”
“To go away again, Fergal?”
“At last to stay, please God. Dunalla shall live again.”
Hand-in-hand they walked back to the keep, the night warm about them with love and peace. Dry-eyed now, Caroline remembered, her thoughts restless as the sea and the speeding ship that carried Fergal to some tempestuous destiny.
She felt trapped in the shadowy room,
not simply by the massively thick walls but by the stockades that she felt were being raised about her life. Life was being planned for
her, things expected of her that took no regard of what she was. Aunt Millicent
was showing her hand; she would have her return with her to Philipstown
to be groomed for society and a suitable marriage. The thought of the fine,
over-furnished house with its neat gardens and smooth lawns made her
breathless; the thought of her uncle Horace, magistrate, squire and colonel of
yeomanry, hawk-eyed and hard, set in his ways as was his wife who grudged Aunt
Millicent her share of the house. Maybe Lucy had rushed into an early marriage
to escape. Not that the life of a captain's wife isolated at Fermoy was the apotheosis of liberation. Gwen, the
vivacious one, had perhaps, seen her advantage in accepting the position of
companion to an aspiring advocate's dull daughter; on the fringe of the elite
circle, she made the most of her opportunities and
Caroline could envisage no such escapes for herself. If Millicent Picton hemmed her in on one side, Rose O'Shaughnessy Drynan crowded the other with even more forceful argument: Moybranach, outside Athenry, had been her home for a great part of her childhood. Rose wanted her back there. Drynan would mount her on a fine horse so that she could follow the Galway Blazers, dance at the Hunt Balls, find a husband among her kin, Irish to the core. She pictured the ruddy-faced militia men stationed at Athenry and the hard drinking, fox-hunting half gentry with their loud voices and swaggering gait, and she did not want any of them. The knight in the mural was a man from another world. Her father had been a man from over the sea. And Fergal. Ah Fergal! There was no-one she wanted to marry. Nor did she want to fill the place of a child to either of these hungry, barren women.
The impulse of the moment guided her. She lifted her sealskin coverlet and opening the casement, dropped it to the ground below. One foot over the window-sill and she was feeling with her toe for the first hold. Almost as soon as she had inherited Rose O'Shaughnessy's room, she learnt about the footholds in the exterior wall. Perhaps nobody could have told her who grooved this first ladder to freedom. There were many old tales of pursuit and flight of lovers' trysts and conspiratorial meetings. The dates were uncertain. What she knew for sure was that Aunt Rose had used the footholds. She had been a wild girl in her day, riding horseback by night to meet discredited lovers, consorting with wine smugglers. There was a rumour of one such seafarer ..... a blackavised Spaniard they said. The caves in the creek below Dunalla held their own secrets. They told nothing; but time might tell.
Clinging by flint and ivy, she eased herself to the ground. Nothing stirred in the bawn except the pony and he was too busy cropping grass to pay much heed. She thought of going for a pony ride, but remembered that the poor beast was tired and hungry. She picked the withered ivy leaves from her hair and ran her hands down her ruffled dress. Touching the gold under the silk, feeling the luxury. Away from the lonely throb of the sea there was music. She wrapped her sealskin around her, ran, light-footed across the bawn and out under the crumbling arch. A sharp turn to the left led by a worn path down to the river. Never much more than a stream, it was at its lowest after the summer. Flat fording-stones, laid long ago to short-cut O'Shaughnessy territory, still provided a safe crossing for the nimble. She danced from stone to stone as to unheard music.
Beyond the river the land, once O'Shaughnessy territory, was now the property of Joseph Ferriter, incorporated in his expanding demesne. The O'Shaughnessy roving grounds were fielded and fenced as were the once-neglected Clanburren lands to the west of Dunalla. Time and tide and progress hemmed the old keep in; there was no escape except by water; over the sea or over the river. Caroline had skipped the stepping-stones in childhood, regarding no river boundary. She was in no mood to respect boundaries this moonlit night. She was nearly seventeen and the music was calling.