“What is the matter, Caroline?” Nick asked as he entered her room to find her in a state of distress.
“I had a dream. It was so real, I can hardly believe it was a dream. There was somebody ..... something ..... leaning over me. I could hear it breathing. I felt a hand ..... a big, soft hand ..... big like a pillow. It pressed down. I was smothering. There was a face ..... a white face with glittering eyes. It said nothing ..... just stared. I tried to cry out. I could not.”
“You did cry out ..... loudly enough to wake the whole household. Fortunately the servants' quarters are well out of earshot. Let us hope they slept heavily. You are overwrought, my dear. It was only a dream.”
“I saw a face. I heard the door close.”
“Nonsense, girl! The corridor is quite empty. Come and see.”
The corridor was empty. They followed its length in both directions. Nick glanced briefly into the bedrooms they passed. In the eerie candlelight, sheeted furniture seemed to crouch and stir; casements shuddered; eyes watched them from the portraits on the walls; they, faced with light, stared blankly.
“Well, my little dreamer, are you satisfied?” Nick enquired.
“I was so sure. That face!”
There was something rather impatient in the way he gathered her in his arms and in his voice:
“Enough of this nonsense. There are no ghosts in this house and I insist that none be invented. I forbid you to have a ghost for company.”
“You cannot forbid a ghost, Nick. It will haunt til it finds peace.”
“This is a new building. It has no dark memories.”
“The old tower. What do you know of its memories?”
“They have nothing to do with us. It is a piece of mouldering history which was never ours. It has nothing to say to us.”
She noticed how he had started at the mention of the tower, how his fingers had gripped her shoulder, how cold his voice sounded.
“Old stones have long memories,” she said, half to herself, remembering Dunalla.
“Foolish memories,” he retorted. “Ballinmore has no interest in such. You must learn the ways of Ballinmore. They are reasonable ways.”
“If I could explore the tower ..... see for myself ..... I should be satisfied. That would be reasonable.”
“Mad!” he shouted, “absolutely mad. I forbid you to take such a risk. Cannot you accept my word, Caroline, or must I teach you to obey?”
He left her abruptly. Let her come to terms with her wild imaginings. Let her realise who was master. Caroline threw open the casement, breathed the dawn air, watched the light pick shape from shadow till the whole panorama spread clear and ordered from terrace to distant hills; the sounds of water, wind in the trees, the dawn chirrup of birds were familiar and reassuring. There was no drawbridge raised against the open world. This was her future world for better or worse. She determined to be its mistress. No ghost would intimidate the chieftain’s daughter. There was no talk of dreams or ghosts over breakfast. Caroline ate heartily. To all intents and purposes, she had slept the fears of night away.
In the few days of Marsmain's leave that remained, they went riding every morning, once following the local hunt which was an occasion for mirth and banter. In the evenings by the fire Caroline made the silence sweet with music on the old harp that had been Lady Ballinmore’s, or on the splendid, rather out-of-tune piano. In general Nick's time was taken up with military affairs; meetings of local worthies who were forming the Ballinmore Yeomanry, hours in the library when the drone of voices went on tediously.
“I declare, you menfolk talk more than women. Whatever is it all about?” Caroline asked.
“The things that occupy the minds of
most land-owners and men of substance in these times. Peaceful as it seems here, hardly a
night passes without a raid on some worthy house .....
in search of arms, they say, but barns are burnt,
cattle maimed, property damaged, lives threatened. The menace spreads and none
are beyond hazard. The military neglect their first duty, which is to defend
the country rather than protect property. The militia are not all trustworthy,
though it is to be hoped General Abercromby, since he
has taken command, will restore some discipline. I must impress these
complaining worthies that, in any case, it is their own duty to protect their
persons and property with a strong yeomanry of reliable men. Most of them
cannot see beyond their own fences, but
She avoided the cut and asked innocently:
“Why is it all happening now, Nick?”
“You make the Irish sound like spiteful children. They have a case.”
“They never put it reasonably. Grattan did ..... and others. I saw his point, even agreed with him. How many
native Irish did? They understand little of constitutional reform.
“United Irishmen indeed! The Irish never unite for long. In the end, it will be every man for his own small cause. They never win. Yet they are never beaten. Thank God I shall be with a real army, fighting a real enemy. I am sick of pursuing shadows.”
“You may be fighting my brother. I cannot bear the thought.”
“It is unlikely. Your brother is a shadow who fights in the shadows.”
She turned away from him, not wishing to say more on the forbidden subject. From the tall window she looked out over calm, well-kempt lawns, a shimmering lake, peaceful hills. It was a proud scene and he noted with gratification how her head lifted as she took its details in.
“You must learn to live a different life, my Caroline. I expect my wife to think and behave as befits her station. Never forget for one moment that you are wedded to a soldier of the King and that, one day, you will be the Lady Ballinmore. Today you must begin. I shall present you to the servants in the great hall. Hold your head high. Never allow any familiarity. They are here to serve you; that is all they understand.”
It was like acting out a charade. In that spirit, she carried out her part in the formal presentation. There was nothing in her behaviour that he could find to criticise. The staff played its part, curtseying and scraping like a string of puppets. Inside Caroline a devil prompted laughter at the pomposity. It was all turning out as Gwen said it would. She was glad Maureen was not among the assembled servants. There had been enough giggling when the girl helped her dress for the grand occasion.
“You did splendidly,” Nick acknowledged, “I am proud of my lovely bride.”
“Is that all of them?” Caroline asked.
“That is all. We hire extra staff for receptions, otherwise it does not take a large staff to run the place. Later we shall visit the cottagers who do the farm work.”
“What about Ninny?”
“Well, she is not exactly a servant, unless you count a jestless jester. You may as well get to know her too. But first, we must pay a visit to my father.”
“I was not aware that he was at home. Why .....?”
“He has been ill ..... an accident ..... you will find him greatly changed.”
A stout, sullen woman, who appeared to be acting as a nurse, admitted them to the grand chamber. Amidst all the grandeur a shattered man, aged beyond recognition, lay propped by many pillows, in a massive bed. Nick led Caroline to him.
“Well father, this is my beautiful bride,” Nick announced, “you remember Caroline. You were asleep when we arrived last night. What think you of my choice?”
“Beautiful,” Lord Ballinmore murmured, “too good for you, Nick ..... far too good.” He extended a frail hand to Caroline. There was a vague entreaty in his eyes. It was hard to believe that he had once looked on her lustfully. She was moved by a great pity.
“You have had an accident Lord Ballinmore,” she said gently, “I am sorry. How do you feel today?”
“The better for seeing your pretty face, my dear. I need a sweet woman about me ..... not that fat monster with ploughman's hands. Now you are here I shall be better every day. My day is not done yet, Nick. I will ride to hounds again.”
“Of course,” Nick replied, not caring it seemed to Caroline.
“I am determined. The devil is hard to kill.”
There was something between father and son that disturbed Caroline. Nick fidgeted, impatient to be off. She had no knowledge of the mysterious “accident” that has so diminished his lordship, no inkling of the row over Arabella. Lord Ballinmore had taken a heavy fall, struck his head on a massive fender. Perhaps he had been in his cups. Perhaps he had received a sturdy blow sufficient to topple a sturdy countryman. At this stage she had no reason to suspect Nick. None did, except the old cook who muttered “Accident indeed!”, but Caroline had not heard her muttering.
She wondered when Nick had a huge hunk of bread brought to him from the kitchen. Perhaps it was a titbit for his horse or for the dogs that guarded the stable yard for that was where they seemed to be heading. She was to know very soon. Nick banged on the massive door of the old tower. There was a prolonged wait; then it creaked open; a withered face peered out.
“Come out, Ninny,” he commanded, “that’s the girl. Come out for some bread.”
The deaf mute appeared to lip-read. She advanced slowly from the inner darkness, closing the door behind her. No wonder they thought her a witch, Caroline thought. Stooped and wizened, her hair streaming in shaggy wisps over her shoulders, gap-toothed and fierce-eyed, she stood, half cowering before her master like some whipped cur. Caroline was more appalled by her obvious terror than repelled by her appearance. Nick seemed vastly amused by the poor creature whose hands twitched to snatch the bread. He held it away from her, teasing.
“Ah it’s food you have your greedy eye on. Not a glance for my lovely lady who will be mistress of Ballinmore. Fie on you, Ninny! I had hoped you were better mannered. So he teased and taunted till the poor thing grew distraught. Approaching and retreating as he coaxed or menaced her, her rags fluttered in the chilly morning breeze. Tiring of the game at last he threw the bread to the ground as far as possible so that she had to run for it. She scrambled it up in claw-like hands, growling like an enraged animal. Then, holding the precious morsel in her bosom, she ran for the keep and the door slammed to behind her; there was the sound of bolts being shot home.
“Poor creature,” Caroline remonstrated. “How can you treat her so ..... like an animal?”
“She is an animal, Caroline. Do not waste your sympathy on Ninny. Stay away from her too; she could be dangerous. By right she should be in a madhouse.”
Perhaps he had overdone it; from then on Nick was sweet solicitude. They went riding together, exploring the estate, paying patronising calls on their peasant tenantry, formal, equally patronising calls on the local worthies: the shifty-looking physician who would take care of Caroline's bodily welfare, the resident magistrate, the clergy, the prominent landowners and businessmen. On every occasion the call was brief, a mere introduction, always a condescension, it seemed to Caroline. Maureen had toiled hard to get the blood and wine stains from her ultramarine habit; always she wore her feathered hat, hair neatly coiffeured beneath it. What could not be trimmed to frigid formality was the warm humanity of her smile.
She passed all the tests; that pleased Nick. She would make an excellent “my lady”. Though some thought her rather young, she was “so much more agreeable than her late ladyship who was undoubtedly a very fine lady and well-meaning, but stand-offish and proud; not but this one is proud too, in her own way. It will be grand to have a lady at the castle again. There will be some life about the place.”