There was a soft thud of footsteps hurrying along the corridor. They came to a halt. A door opened and shut. Then there was silence. Caroline knew that, beyond that door which was always locked, led the passage to the old keep. Did the Lady Adeline walk at this witching hour? Nick had told her not to lie awake for him. He had a great deal of business to attend to before his departure on the morrow. He would be annoyed if she asked foolish questions; he had assured her over and over again that there were no ghosts at Castle Ballinmore, not even in the keep unless she counted Lady Adeline. Still she was curious.
She opened her door softly and sped along the corridor. The heavy door at the end was shut fast as usual. The handle was stiff, but a turn proved that it was unlocked. She pushed it open cautiously. The passage above the archway was draughty and rough under her bare feet. She had to feel her way in the darkness. Slowly, inching forward, she came to the end. A massive door let into the wall of the old tower stood firm against her. It was securely locked. She had a fleeting impulse to knock and demand admittance. She laid her ear against the seam and listened.
At first she heard nothing but the moan of the wind and a scrabble of some small bird or animal; then, faintly she distinguished a murmur of voices inside the tower. They were men’s voices she was sure, but she could distinguish nothing of the conversation, nor could she distinguish one from other. She must not be caught here. Shivering in her thin nightgown, she retraced her steps.
She was safely back in the main corridor and about to close the door behind her when a faint, far cry broke the silence. It had a wild, tormented shrillness like the shriek of a tortured animal ..... perhaps a tortured human being. She instantly resolved that, somehow, she would exorcise this “ghost”. Not a word of her experience crossed her lips either that night or in the morning. There were other things to think of. Her husband was leaving. He held her in his arms and kissed her tenderly.
“You have nothing to fear, my lovely Caroline,” he reassured her, “nothing in the world. I shall return soon. Think of me, as I will of you constantly. Take great care of yourself for my sake .…. and our child's. No more mad rides on Leviathan, remember. Keep clear of that mad old woman in the tower; she must not cast the evil eye on my son. Keep clear of the tower itself; it is much too dangerous.”
She smiled and shed no tears. What a brave girl she was; at least she did not feign inconsolable grief. She would endure the test. She must. He had chosen her from among women to bear his heir who must be without blemish and fair to look upon, unmarked by any scar. It was only as the coach bore him away round the bend of the avenue that she fully realised the implications of his departure. Behind her, as she watched from the terrace, the great house sighed lonesomely. Lord Ballinmore's wraithlike face, watching from a window, was no comfort. Involuntarily her fingers sought the golden circlet on her thigh. It was not there. It had never been replaced, nor did she know what had become of it. She was filled with a sense of immense desolation. Her tears began to flow. As she turned to re-enter the house they streamed freely, damping the bosom of her dress. Lord Ballinmore was waiting within the great hall, a strange look, half pity, half disdain on is face.
“Ah, my dear girl,” he said, “I fear you make a sorry wife for a hero. I had believed you of stouter metal. I think you are going to need me after all, whatever the gallant Colonel has said.” The words were not very comforting, but they had their effect. She dried her eyes and looked directly at him.
“Yes,” she said, “even as you need me. Shall I order breakfast?”
“Egad, yes. No pap neither. I have been fed on pap till I am weak as a newborn foal. Let me have beefsteak and beer, if such there is to be found in this house.”
Caroline pulled the bell-rope and gave the order. The servant bustled away, pleased to see the old master so recovered. As fast as it could be prepared, a hearty breakfast was set before him. Caroline, who had breakfasted with Nick, now sipped a glass of mead. His lordship fell on the savoury viands like a famished animal. Noting his voracity, she had another thought; she pulled the bell-rope again. Her order was firm and clear:
“Tell cook that his lordship will dine as usual this evening. Have the table laid for two.”
“There's a pheasant …..”
“That would do splendidly; but first, let us have a clear soup, and bring out a ripe cheese and some fruit. Cook should know his lordship's preferences by now.”
“Bring up a bottle of the good wine .…. the claret we were keeping for a special occasion. It has arrived.”
“You play my lady very well, Caroline,” he said, when the servant was out of earshot. “I declare, with such encouragement, I shall soon be my former self. There's plenty of life in the old dog, yet. I'll show Nick Marsmain!”
“I am sure he will be pleased.”
“Pleased? He'd sooner it were the other way: that I were weak and in my dotage. Not I, Nick, my fine colonel, not I!”
Like a mouse out of the wainscot, the vigilant nurse appeared in time to hear the boast. She bustled forward, prepared to remonstrate. It was doctor’s orders that his lordship be fed on thin soup and weak gruel, nothing else, and that he should rest till he regained his strength.
“You do not know how ill you have been, my lord,” she remonstrated, “strong food or too much exertion could bring on another seizure. Then you would have to be bled again. You didn't like the bleeding, did you, sir?”
“No!” he shouted angrily, “I did not like bleeding. And I don't like lying a-bed. And I don't like thin gruel. Above all, I don't like your nursing. You will not be required any more. Pack your things, my good woman. I'll order the pony-cart.”
He was breathless and sweating, but he would not let the harridan touch him. With a wave of his hand he dismissed her finally. Caroline rang the bell and called for Maureen to assist her. Together they helped Lord Ballinmore to a comfortable sofa. He stretched out and closed his eyes. For a short while he looked like a dying man. When he opened his eyes again, the devil was dancing in them.
“Egad, she's a pretty wench, that Maureen!” he said, “pretty enough to make an old man young again.” It was plain that Caroline must be vigilant. Lord Ballinmore was quite likely to prove a handful.
“Maureen,” she said, “I feel a little lost in this great house. It can be eerie at night. I would like you to come and sleep in the little dressing room off mine. Would you mind?”
“No, Miss Caroline, I'd like that very much.”
Whatever Maureen had heard or understood, she seemed genuinely relieved. Great lords were given to sleep-walking. She would be safer with Caroline, happier to be near her. When he heard the story, a certain young stable boy called Hughy was manifestly relieved. From that day on the new “lady” had a loyal and devoted servant. So long as he had his strong right arm, no harm should come to a hair of her beautiful head. That night Caroline took her time to climb the elegant stair. The ancestral eyes watched blankly from their frames. She outstared them; at the last of the fixed faces, she stuck out her tongue. She had a curious, elated feeling of detachment from their pride of land and lineage. She had dared to disobey.
Every day Lord Ballinmore mended. Soon he was moving about freely, grasping the reins. He went riding in the mornings. He resumed communication with neighbours, began to concern himself with the newly formed Yeomanry. Eventually he felt fit to organise a shooting party. As the shooting brake disappeared down the avenue, Caroline watched it go with a sense of achievement: that he had so far recovered under her care and that he had, however peremptorily, given her a charge:
“See that some extra places are laid for dinner; we may have guests.”
Presently she must summon the housekeeper; the issuing of orders confirmed status. She was mistress of the mansion. The thought pleased her. The tribal “castle of bones” was, after all, a meagre and vulnerable security. She reached for the bell-rope. After instructions had been conveyed to the housekeeper, there was a long day before her with nothing in particular to do, no elderly gentleman to weary her with family history, exploits of war and the chase, political harangue. She would be called upon neither to listen with patience nor to entertain with music, to read aloud from the newspapers nor to order egg-nog when his lordship felt in need of a pick-me-up. She rang for Maureen. The fire had been kindled early in the great hall. Soon the two girls were seated on stools close to its cheery glow. Caroline stared at it thoughtfully.
“I've lost my ring, Maureen,” she said suddenly.
“Your ring? Why it is on your hand, Miss Caroline.”
“Not that ring ….. the one Fergal gave me. Let me explain.”
She told Maureen the whole story for the first time of the golden band and the bond and of how the circlet had been removed. Maureen's merry face grew grave.
“Oh Miss Caroline,” she said, “I can't think he could do such a thing to you ..... to take the one keepsake your own brother gave you. But sure maybe he forgot to give it back.”
“He did not forget. I reminded him. Why wouldn't he want me to wear it?”
“Maybe it’s jealous he was, an’ you lovin' Fergal so much. He wanted you to love him only. Men are like that sometimes. He’ll get over it ..... when .....”
“When what, Maureen?”
“When the baby comes, Miss Caroline.”
“So you know?”
“I had a fair guess. If you don't mind me sayin', I'd like to see you happier. Tell me, are you really happy? Do you want to be the Lady Ballinmore? Do you want this child?”
“Oh Maureen, I can answer none of your questions just now. I am proud to be the lady of the mansion, but it seems I am playing a part. I don't feel like myself as I used to be. I seem to be waiting for something. Maybe I'll spend the rest of my life waiting ..... waiting for some man to return ..... waiting for life to begin.”
“Oh please, don't take on so. It's waitin' for the baby you are ..... an' for himself to come back. An' sure they'll both come in their own good time. You have had a time of it with that peevish oul' man these weeks past; sure he's enough to try a saint. You need some diversion. You have a whole day, please God, to do what you like.”
“What do you suggest?”
“The black box.”
It had stood where a manservant had left it in a dark corner of the hall ever since the night of arrival.
“If I was you I'd be dyin' to see what was in it. I don't know what holds you back. Would you like me to fetch a couple of the lads? They could carry it up to your own room. Then you could open it any time you took the notion.”
When the box was safely deposited in her bedroom, Caroline stood staring at it with fascinated horror. On the richly dyed carpet, among the fine furniture, the tranquil watercolours, the shells and knick-knacks, the fine lace and delicate embroidery, it stood, lumpish, scowling and alien.
“Maureen,” she gasped, “don't you think it looks like a baby's coffin?”
“On no, Miss Caroline, it's by far too big. You mustn't think such a thing. It's only a harmless, ugly oul' box.”
“I'm afraid to open it. Maybe there's a curse on it.”
“Divil a curse. I'll bet there's nothin' in it but a few bits of jewellery, or embroidery ..... somethin' your aunt set store by. Maybe it's her oul' love letters all tied up with ribbons. I'd open it an' set my min' at rest, if I was you.”
She did not sound as confident as she pretended. Caroline was not persuaded.
“Some other time,” she said. “Now I'd rather do something more cheerful ..... or exciting. Let us explore the house.”
Caroline had already seen most of what there was to see. Though large and imposing, the house was laid out with some of the order and economy that the later 18th century brought to a finer art. There were little Gothic turrets that betrayed its earlier, less assured symmetry. These features which had first loomed eerily out of the dusk at her first coming, turned out to be unsinister. They were not hiding places for skeletons, but proved to be either empty or used to store surplus furniture, pictures, old guns and general bric-a-brac. The cobwebs in the darker recesses were plain spider-work, not the dark thralls of blood-sucking monsters. The tour of the larger apartments, mostly dust-sheeted, was routine and chilly. They were about to return to the warmth of the fire when Caroline recalled the old tower.
“That is the place of the secrets, Maureen. Of that I am certain. But Nick has forbidden me to enter it. He says it is crumbling inside and in a dangerous condition.”
“It's haunted too. But it can't be such a bad place; the oul' woman lives in it. Did ever you see her?”
“Once. She looks like a witch. They say she is one. But the poor creature is deaf and dumb ..... and lonely I feel sure.”
“She has her son. He lives inside there with her. Nobody's supposed to know, but sure everybody does. Hughy was tellin' me about him. He's a half-wit they say ..... never came out as long as anyone minds.”
“He must be quite old.”
“Not so oul'. Near an age with the heir that died ..... the Colonel's older brother ..... him that his mother mourned about for the rest of her days. You heard about him?”
“Yes, a little. He died of the fever. He was only a boy. I wonder what he was like. Nobody knows except the housekeeper an' she's tight-mouthed. It seems he had red hair hair an' was always delicate. He was but a year or two older than the colonel.”
“So Ninny's son is quite young. She mustn't be as old as she seems, poor creature. She leads a very dreary life. By the way, tell me more about Hughy.”
“He's a stable boy,” Maureen replied with a swift blush, “he does all sorts of odd jobs as well ..... an’ runs errands ..... general factotum an' bogtrotter to Lord Ballinmore, he is. He knows a thing or two, mind you.”
“Especially how to win a pretty girl's affections, I can see. He is a lucky young man. I think I know which one he is ..... a fair, good-looking lad ..... brighter than the others and very ready to help. It was he who helped carry up that wretched box today.”
“'Twas, Miss. Maybe he'd get you into the tower some time, if you really wanted. He'd take care of you. I'll ask him.”
“On no account, Maureen. He must not lose his job at Castle Ballinmore. Whatever would we do without him. One day I shall find a way into the tower for myself. I must know its secret. I cannot live happy in a place that keeps its secrets from me. Come, let us take a closer look; it will serve for now.”
Well wrapped against the chill of late October, they went out. In the fading light, the old tower stood, dark and glum among the leafless trees. Linked with the much newer edifice by the covered archway, it had no relevance with it in time or character but stood apart like a disinherited chieftain. They scanned its time-scarred facades. Behind the glazed loop-holes no sign of light or life glimmered. Caroline picked out the window that occasionally seemed to shine.
“The glass is cleaner in that than in the others. That must be where they live. If she can climb the stair, then I could. But not now. It is time to prepare for the return of the shooting party.”