The gates stood wide open. The avenue swept gracefully between young trees. In front of the house a well-kempt lawn stretched smooth as velvet and vividly green in the lights that blazed from every window and from the lanterns strung between bordering trees. Caroline had heard much of the splendour of Ardcullen House; now she saw how well the fine brick mansion testified to Joseph Ferriter's prosperity; there was none so fine in all the countryside.
From the open hall door she could see the spacious hall with its fine mosaic floor and elaborately executed plasterwork. The wide, graceful stairway was flanked with what appeared to be 'ancestral' portraits, the chandelier glittered with innumerable candles. A throng of people moved up and down and from room to room; she caught glimpses of elaborately coiffeured hair, of gowns in velvet and satin and lace, of flirted fans and much bowing over hands. The night air was a flutter of laughter and badinage and music. She had arrived at the elegant assembly she so often dreamed of. But she was an uninvited guest.
Looking was free and Caroline had a
mind to make the most of it. She slipped through the shrubbery to view from
another angle. As though to facilitate her, a little arbour overhung with late
blooming roses appeared. It was a perfect hiding place from which to view the
splendid drawing room. Seal dark wrapped in her fur, she feasted her eyes on
the brilliant scene. Great wax candles, brought in quantity from
At first it was overpowering. To her
inexperienced eyes it was as grand as any of the brilliant
Two figures emerged from the hall door and strolled across the terrace. Both were attired in full dress uniform, scarlet with gold braid; their spurs glinted as they walked. One, she supposed, must be John Ferriter, captain of dragoons; she could see his narrow face and quick, dark eyes. So this was the boy on the pony who had eyed her so insolently, and whom Aunt Millicent would have her wed. Indeed!
His companion was taller, broader in shoulder, more assured in bearing; his face, strongly featured, was handsome, yet arrogant and saturnine. He looked like a man used to getting his way, and no wonder, for there was a trace of the devil in him. He would be older than Ferriter ..... older than Fergal ..... about thirty she thought.
The two men stood in converse for a few minutes. Having reached a decision, they retraced their steps. Presently menservants appeared with chairs which they arranged on the terrace. The musicians took their seats. Then the crowded reception rooms began to empty as the younger folk spilled out onto the lawn with much chatter and giggling. The young men took partners and began to form lines for a set dance.
Amongst the flutter of girls, Caroline picked out the one who must be Malvinia Ferriter. She resembled her brother, but her face was broader and flatter and her eyes less alert; she peered about her as though short-sighted, focussing on nothing in particular, yet searching for something or somebody. The “belle of the ball”, over-dressed in a confused flutter of pink flounces, her dull brown hair stacked high, she seemed unsure of herself. Not that she lacked partners for the dance; several men of varying ages offered to partner her, but she declined one and all. Her eyes found a focal point to which they kept returning. And hers were not the only admiring glances towards the tall, handsome man in uniform. Alone he stood on the terrace, surveying the medley, for John Ferriter had joined the formation.
Malvinia began to sidle in his direction. Feigning not to notice, he leapt from the terrace and skirted the crowd moving rapidly in the direction of the rose arbour. The purpose of his sudden move was, so he made it appear, to set one of the lanterns to rights. It hung perilously close to Caroline's hiding place. Whatever happened, she must not be caught lurking. Slipping out of her sealskin wrap, she stepped out. Directly in Nick Marsmain's path.
That is how she came to join the Cotillion. To Marsmain it seemed the most natural thing in the world to take this strange, beautiful girl by the hand and lead her into the formation. To Caroline it was the only way out of an embarrassing discovery. Since the party was made up of people who did not usually meet, a new face meant nothing in particular and, if Caroline was a beautiful stranger, Nick Marsmain was a handsome one. At a distance Malvinia could scarcely recognise her closest acquaintance; all she saw was that the object of her fond hopes had found himself a partner. She let herself be led off by the first hand that offered itself. The musicians struck up a merry tune.
On the soft grass it was impossible to step with the precision usual on a ballroom floor. Caroline learnt as she went, following the pattern of the set dance. Her ears were quick to catch the rhythm of the music, her eyes to learn the figures of the dance. Whatever move she made, right or wrong, it was graceful, which was more than could be said of many a move around her.
Nick Marsmain's eyes never left her face. He could hardly believe his luck, that this delightful young creature had appeared like a dryad from the trees, just when it seemed there was no escape from Malvinia. A Cotillion on the lawn had been his idea; it seemed to offer some escape from the ogling damsels, curious matrons and endless introductions to “gentry” who were more anxious to meet him than he them.
He liked the way Caroline had joined in the dance without coyness or query. He made no attempt to disguise his admiration. At first she was so engrossed in following the figures of the dance that she hardly looked at him. When she saw how intently his bold gaze was fixed on her, felt the pressure of his hand on hers, she was swept by a new emotion, an overwhelming, sensuous delight as though her body woke fully for the first time, every nerve tingling with a wild anticipation. Aware of danger, she held her head high. But the rosy flush on her cheeks did not escape Nicholas Marsmain's notice.
Nor had this handsome couple escaped
the notice of other dancers and of the older ladies and gentlemen who thronged
the terrace to watch the capers on the lawn, Joseph Ferriter
racked his brain to remember who this beautiful girl might be; there were so
many young girls grown out of recognition among his acquaintance that he could
scarcely have named more than a dozen. Not one looked more elegant than his own
Malvinia for whom he had hopes of a brilliant
marriage. This girl disturbed him; uncommonly plainly dressed, by his
standards, her beauty and grace outshone all pretensions. And Nicholas Marsmain, one of the most eligible bachelors in
“I think she must be one of the Ferdew girls; she has the colouring. I haven't visited the family for ages. The girls must be quite grown up.”
“We did ask the Ferdews, didn't we, Joe?” Hetty enquired.
“We did of course, Hetty. The elder son and two of the girls came. Both girls are in the Cotillion.”
“Oh, the tall girl in blue must be Letitia. How she has grown.”
“Indeed. This outing must be a rare chance for her to find the right partner. I don't think she has done so, yet.”
They were both mollified, but they were not talking about the same girl. John Ferriter was less easily reassured. From the head of the line he cast many a sharp look at the girl in blue. Marsmain saw him and knew he must be discreet. Ferriter was always a friend in need, whatever the motive. He had humoured him by coming to the ball, humoured the family by his gallantry to Malvinia; not even his enchantment with this lovely girl must interfere with a desire to please, however tedious.
Thank heaven the girl carried herself with pride. Though he knew she was attracted to him and hoped that to be both deeply and seriously, yet she showed no inclination to cling. In fact, realising how many watched, Caroline was shying away. Maybe, after the dance, she would disappear as rapidly as she had come. Which was exactly what she was planning to do.
The choice was not left to her. Nick Marsmain drew her firmly and swiftly away from the dancers. He led her up the steps, across the terrace, past the dowagers crowding to watch the dance, past the old men about the steaming punch bowl, through the drawing room and out by a French window to the rose garden.
“Let me find you a sheltered seat. It's deuced hot in there!” he said.
The rustic seats in the rose garden were too exposed. Following through, they reached the little arbour Caroline had found for herself. There was safe shelter in the cascade of late-blooming roses that fell over the lattice. He led her to a rustic bench.
“Splendid!” he said. “We shall have a little time undisturbed while the dancers quench their thirst. Let me fetch you something to drink. What shall it be? Rum punch or raspberry cordial?”
“Raspberry cordial,” Caroline replied.
When he had gone, she felt on the floor for the sealskin and pushed it under her seat. Nick was back in a matter of moments bearing a crystal goblet and a silver dish. The goblet was filled to the brim with a delicious liquid that smelt of the wild raspberries she had used to pick by the hedgerows. She had never seen meringues before; the dish was piled with delicate, white mounds of fragile snow. Marsmain turned as a manservant appeared at the doorway bearing a goblet of punch and a plate of assorted meats. He took the food from him, dismissing him immediately. The man saw nothing in the dim interior.
Nick seated himself by Caroline's side.
“Now we can sup in peace” he said easily. “No need to mind our fine manners, unless you insist.”
Caroline laughed. He picked up a chicken bone and began. There was no mistaking that he was a hungry man. It amused Caroline to think how the Ferriters must have polished up their manners to impress their distinguished guest; she could see them picking and nibbling, using their napkins and their finger-bowls, showing him that they knew how to behave like the gentry. And here he was eating from his fingers, quaffing hot punch as lustily as a huntsman. Whatever would Aunt Millicent think? So different from the behaviour of the fine folk she talked about.
“It amuses you,” Nick said, warmly approving. “I only wish I knew how to keep you amused. You have the most delightfully natural laugh. Lor' I'm tired of ladylike tinkles and girlish giggles. I say, do help yourself to the meringues. They're all for you. Or would you like a chicken bone?”
“I'd like both. I'm hungry.”
“Why you're a rare treat.”
Nick laughed, chuckling quietly between mouthfuls. Caroline dared not say what a treat this was for her; she forgot that she was supposed to be a well fed guest, not an intruder who had supped frugally on rabbit broth. The meringues melted on her tongue; the raspberry cordial was nectar. The strong, handsome man sitting so close by her was father and brother ..... and something more that made her tingle with awakened femininity.
“I'm glad you have a healthy appetite,” Nick said. “I like a girl who isn't ashamed to eat. I suspect dainty pickers of predatory habits ..... puss in the pantry. By the way, you appeared rather suddenly tonight; at the right moment, I must admit. But how did I miss you before?”
Caroline was glad that her face was in shadow; she could feel a blush warm her cheek.”
“There is such a crowd,” she said, “you probably didn't notice me.”
“It is hardly credible, with a face like yours. Don't tell me we were introduced, or I shall despair of myself for a dull dog.”
“You scarcely saw me. I was in the shadows.”
“I have good sight; at least I thought I had. Was I also so deaf that I did not catch your name?”
“Not deaf, there was a lot of chatter. I am Caroline.”
“Of course,” he said dubiously, “you're Caroline. I'm Nick, you remember.”
She nodded, disturbed by the expression in his deep-set grey eyes. He studied her face intently, taking her in, drawing her like a magnet. Though she was half hidden in the leafy shade, she felt that he could see her clearly, see her naked, read the very thoughts that flitted through her mind. What a silly child he must think her. She drew herself up, held her head proudly, not guessing how the movement fascinated him. He determined that this should not be their last tête-à-tête.
“I should like to see you again,
Caroline,” he said coaxingly as he slid a hand over hers. “Perhaps
“I never have, but I hope to one day soon.”
“Very soon, I hope. What a stir your
debut will make in
“That I shall not,” she replied with a laugh, thinking of Gwen as the only likely person.
“Excellent! Then I shall only have my rivals to contend with, for, in troth, rivals I shall have. Oh my sweet girl, let me look at you. Let me feast my eyes.”
He drew aside an overhanging spray and let the light fall on her face. She did not flinch, nor simper nor grow coy, but looked at him directly as a child. It was then she saw for the first time the faint line of a scar that ran the line of his jaw from temple to chin. There was something intriguing about the delicate pale line ..... some battle-scar that enhanced his masculine features. She involuntarily traced its course with a cool finger-tip. It was a perfectly natural, childish gesture, but it enflamed him. He was not a man to delay or to be denied. In a moment his arms were about her, his lips seeking her warm, young mouth. So Caroline had her first lover's kiss. She clung to Nick Marsmain as though this moment must be held still forever. She was wax in her lover's hands. For the moment. But the fiddlers were tuning for another dance. Their plucked strings broke the spell.
They heard footsteps approaching the arbour ..... a man's brisk, military tread.
“Wait, my darling Caroline. I will be back,” Nick whispered urgently as he stepped out into the light.
“Ah, John,” he said smoothly. “The music strikes up. I believe I am to have this quadrille with your charming sister. I must not keep her waiting.”
Caroline heard them walk away together. The party had returned to the house. There were to be no more cavortings on the lawn. The music for the quadrille sounded subdued. The party had closed in on itself, excluding her.
This was the opportunity to escape. She wanted to run away and she wanted to wait for her handsome lover. She sat for a while in silence struggling to decide.
A chill breeze sighed through the roses. She shivered thinking of the wind that filled the sails of a fleeting ship, remembering the chill shadowy wind of over Turlough's resting place. Touching the golden band that bound her thigh, she remembered Fergal and it was agony that he should be gone from her and that he never could be her lover. For there was no man she would ever love as she loved the man from the sea.
Wrapping the sealskin around her, she stole out into the night.