“When the stranger rides in the Chieftain's coach, death holds the reins.” Bridget's muttering was scarcely audible, but Caroline heard and grew pale. “Not you acushla ..... not you. May God go with you. May your road rise before you. May you come back to Dunalla.”
The farewell had been tender. The old hands put the blessing on her. All would be well, and why shouldn't it be on this glorious September morning with the air fresh from the sea and the waves glittering in the sunlight. Still she could not but remember the momentary malevolence that had crossed Bridget's wrinkled face.
“Arrah she's ravin’,” Maureen said, “pay no heed to her. It's somethin' now she thought of at the last minute. For some reason best known to herself, she doesn't like your handsome Colonel. I have a notion he's not likin' her ..... nor me neither come to that.”
Caroline had had quite a tussle to get her own way about Maureen. She must have her maid, she insisted. She would have no maid but Maureen. With a shrug, Nick acquiesced. Since he must be his own coachman, Caroline might as well have her maid ride with her in the coach. He had a feeling that Bridget had a witch hand in the arrangement and he was right, he wanted no dealings with witches who saw too much, knew too much; there was one witch at Ballinmore.
“Must we take that wretched box?” he asked concerning Millicent's treasury. “Why not open it now and see if there is anything in it worth taking.”
“I'll open it when I feel like it, Nick. The time is not right.” She had that faraway, strange look in her eyes, that had kept her so remote from him ever since they entered this haunted place where he was the “stranger “ and unwelcome.
“I don't understand,” he said sharply, “anyone would think it was your destiny.”
“Maybe it is,” she said softly. “At this moment I do not want to know my destiny. Please let's load the box and go.”
It was nice to have Maureen beside her as they set out on this journey for the second time. Marsmain drove the horses purposefully, wishing to put the miles between him and that dread tower. He had not even mentioned the banshee cry; he never would. It had been the last straw. Little he knew that Maureen had saved his life. Little he would have believed that she was saving his happiness for him even as they travelled. If she was to be a lady's maid, then Caroline must be a lady; she built her up all the way with talk of her status. Under her spell Caroline blossomed again into the lovely bride married to the gallant knight who was the heir to the title and estates of Ballinmore. She began to see herself as mistress of the mansion, receiving guests on glittering occasions, doling out benefices to the poor, receiving her sisters to the hospitality of her home. By the time they had reached a suitable inn, she was ready to meet Nick again with the warmth and eagerness he appreciated and believed he merited. She lay in his arms again, his loving wife come back to life. All the time they were at Dunalla he had not so much as touched her.
“I'm glad to have you away from that eerie place,” he said, “you were cold as a mermaid. Tell me truly, are you one of those strange creatures that change from woman to mermaid ..... and bewitch men, and drive them crazy?” He spoke in banter, but her reply was solemn:
“I am not a mermaid, Nick ..... at least I do not think I am. I was born at sea.”
“And the sea is in your beautiful blue-green eyes. I declare, a man could drown in such beauty ..... and you would not put out a hand to save him.”
“That would depend .....” she whispered and fell asleep.
It was evening when they arrived at
“What sort of young lady?” eager voices asked, knowing that with Nick Marsmain it might be any sort of young lady.
“A young lady who might be mistress of Ballinmore one day, if I’m not mistaken. She's none of your trollops. You'd better make haste and prepare a welcome or it will be worse for you. Himself's the master more or less now since his lordship had the accident.” Maureen, who had followed to the kitchen, stood on tip-toe, waiting, eyes wide, ears pricked for clues.
“Accident indeed,” the old cook muttered as she hoisted herself from her comfortable armchair, “ay, accident indeed.”
“Who are you?” a servant girl asked Maureen.
“I’m her ladyship's maid,” she replied brightly.
“Ladyship? Who's she?”
“The Colonel's lady. They were wed but three days ago.”
“A fine haughty lady no doubt?”
“Not she. She’s the loveliest lady you ever did set eyes on.”
“If so, it's well that we give her a welcome. Would he want us to come out to the hall?”
“He never said,” replied the manservant who had opened the door.
“Then we’d better not let on till he tells us.”
Marsmain would introduce his lady when it pleased him ..... explain their duties to her ..... explain hers. Till she knew her place, there must be no random association. Behaviour was, or must be seen to be, all important. Ladies were ladies, servants servants. He was well aware that Caroline had not quite grasped that first precept for a well-organised mansion. Of course Caroline had no inkling of his thoughts. He was kindness and consideration itself. She was not used to formal receptions in great houses. Everything would be all right as soon as the fire was lighted.
Servants, somewhat tousled and confused, but eager to see the new lady, appeared to take orders. Fires were kindled in the small sitting room and the young master's bedroom. Taking her cold hand, Nick led Caroline up the splendid curving stairway where the portraits of long dead ancestors stared blankly from gilded frames. Above their heads the magnificent ceiling soared, its life-like stucco birds winging their everlasting flight. Under their feet the deep-pile carpet was springy as dry moss. Caroline remembered her first ascent of these stairs, head held high and heart fluttering. Now she was a bride come home to her dream castle. Her eyes lingered on each detail as though she must begin learning everything. They passed the shrouded reception rooms, the dark library with its wordless books. There seemed to be so many doors leading to so many rooms, each shut in with its memories.
“This will be your room while I am away,” Nick announced, throwing open a door. “It was my mother's. There is a fine view from the window.” Caroline started. The room was chilly. The curtains were closely drawn. There was no view but the candle-lit interior. A big four-poster bed, draped in its winding sheets, retained the rigidity of death. She drew in her breath sharply.
“Is this where .....” she asked.
“Yes this is where my mother died. Nothing has been moved or altered.”
“Why so pale, my love? Surely you, who tremble at nothing earthly or unearthly, need not fear my mother’s gentle ghost. But come, let us sup now.” As they supped off cold pheasant by the cheery fire in the small parlour, Nick made some effort to reassure her.
“I know you will come to love that room. It contains most of my mother's dearest treasures. The books are real ..... her favourite volumes ..... mostly verse. She had some native Irish blood like you. You will find some illustrated volumes on Ireland ..... books of Irish songs. She painted the water-colours ..... scenes dear to her. She chose the colours for the hand-woven carpet ..... rich colours like the heather and the fuchsia and the furze. You will feel at home there. Tonight we shall exorcise all ghosts.”
A bowl of steaming punch was set before them. A servant was ordered to light a fire in the small bedroom and have the bed aired. Caroline must begin as he intended she should continue and there was but little time for coaxing. A call might come at any moment for his return to duty. Fed and warmed, the colour restored to her cheeks, Caroline drowsed by the fire. Tomorrow must take care of itself; for tonight, she was too weary to argue about anything.
“I think you should go to bed now, my darling,” Nick said solicitously. “I have some matters to attend to. I will join you later. Your maid will see to you.”
After Maureen had brushed her hair and tucked her in for the night, she was left alone with whatever ghosts there were. The room was warmer now and the firelight picked out the rich colouring of the carpet and the delicate tracery of hand-worked tapestries. There were bright September flowers in a vase near her bed. The candle glimmered bravely. But the room smelt of death and she persuaded herself in vain that it was the old familiar odour of damp and stale peat smoke. The heavy blankets on the great bed folded themselves about her like half-dead human things.
Weariness overcame her fears. When Nick returned much later she was fast asleep. Had he been less exhausted he would have roused her. Instead he stole away to his own apartment along the corridor. The house was dark and silent now. He slept heavily.
Some time towards dawn his slumber was pierced by one wild cry. That dreadful banshee cry again? But no; it came from the room that had been his mother’s.