The post-sporting dinner was a curious assemblage of arrogance, animal hunger, protocol and bellicosity. There were ladies present: Caroline and a dowager of mature years who had arrived late in the afternoon, presumably to chaperone the bride. The latter's presence imposed a modicum of restraint on the free-speaking manly company. General Abercromby's aide had honoured the party and he, perforce was treated with due respect. But the men were hungry and thirsty, raw from the slaughter of wild creatures and eager to express their opinions on the state of the country. As the meal progressed they grew noisier, and more tipsy as the wine flowed. Ignoring the waiting servants, Hughy amongst them, dressed in livery for the occasion, the guests talked quite freely. It never occurred to them that servants had ears, nor that ladies’ ears were said to be “delicate”. The Bantry Bay episode was recalled ..... or their versions of it. The mystery of a murder, the rumours of disquiet, the arms raids, the secret drilling were touched on between mouthfuls.
“The military must be given a free hand,” Squire Batters declared forcefully. “The magistrates are too chicken-hearted.” Across the table, the R. M. singed him with a glare.
“What then must we do?” he demanded. “We send the rogues to the gallows or the fleet at our peril. Old Carthouse saw justice done at Nenagh; seven were hanged in the market place to warn others. Warn them, eh? Last week he was shot down on his own door step. As usual, nobody saw anything.”
“That only proves my point: the military must be given a free hand to go in and get them ..... every man-jack of them, without fear or favour.”
The General's aide raised his eyebrows. He had to smile as he regarded Squire Batters' red face larded with goose-fat from the leg he was gnawing.
“An excellent solution,” he commented dryly, “but alas, too simple. I doubt if so drastic measures would restore order.”
“It did in the north.
“He may have stirred up a hornet's
“If there is a general rising, what then?” someone enquired.
“That will be another matter. The government will decide how the army is used.”
“It may be too late then. Can the militia be trusted in a political rebellion? They say there are enemies within. Who is to say how Major Seveny met his death? He died in a ditch like a dog ..... slain by whom ..... for what?”
“Revenge perhaps. Any man’s grudge is his own affair.”
“You are not suggesting that one of his own men .....?”
“I suggest nothing. We need more regular soldiers to protect us.”
The mention of Seveny was too much for Caroline. She was relieved to withdraw. To entertain the dowager on her own seemed a cheerful prospect as compared with enduring the wrangle about the dining table. Fulsome compliments and lecherous looks did not disguise the fact that they regarded her as a nit-wit. Unbearable as it was, it was easier to endure the widow's constant harking back to the good old days when “my lady” played hostess at Castle Ballinmore.
That rumbustious sally into the world of gentlemen unsettled Lord Ballinmore. In the following days, he was manifestly weary, peevish and hard to please. He insisted that she order immense dinners which, when they were set on the table, did not please him; some dishes he sent back in a tantrum. He kept her ringing for servants to whom he issued orders, many of which, at whim, were cancelled. He had a horse saddled for riding, then decided he wanted a carriage. He received callers according to his whim. Caroline, driven to distraction, longed for Nick's return. He would take charge, set things in order, lift the burden from her shoulders. Yet, when she wrote to him, she did not dwell on the chaos that seemed to be engulfing Castle Ballinmore. She knew it would anger his lordship. She sensed that the last person he wanted to see was his son and heir. There was some difference between them that she could not fathom; sometimes she feared that it was on account of her. Did Lord Ballinmore see her as one of the “enemies within”?
Interspersed with his choleric moods, he had spells of almost sentimental affability. Sometimes, when she played the harp or the piano for him, he would sit gazing at her with an undeniable affection. It was this softer mood that gave her most disquiet; raising her head she would catch the lecherous gleam in his eyes. One thing only protected her from his amorous advances; he believed she carried the embryo of his heir. The shifty-eyed medico whom Caroline detested, had discerned the secret and passed it on. She was sacrosanct, not for her own sake, but for the sake of the family, for the interests of the family transcended whim or desire. To hand on land and lineage was the paramount motive. Whatever grudge his lordship had against his son, he would preserve against all odds the heritage.
Caroline was safe from him, safe as a prisoner, for, with the advance of dreary winter, she felt cloistered in the gloom that settles over country houses when the summer light faded. Things she had scarcely noticed began to crowd in on her: the relics of the chase that hung on the walls, the mounted heads of slaughtered animals, the skins of birds, the stuffed eagle surmounting the chimney piece, the multiplicity of hunting prints. The sheeted rooms, dank with winter chill, were full of dusty memories. The portraits of the ancestors stared with the same haunted expression Lady Ballinmore had worn. Lord Ballinmore eyed her with a mixture of patronage and lust. He eyed Maureen with unconcealed lust and that troubled Caroline.
“It's a woman he wants,” Maureen put it bluntly. “Accident or no, he's not changed. The things I hear about him in the kitchen would make you blush, Miss.”
Caroline did not encourage the conversation. There were things she preferred not to know.
“Like father, like son,” they said. Maureen was right. On a brighter day in December, his lordship ordered a carriage. Dressed in a new close-fitting frock-coat in plum-coloured velvet, a flowered silk waistcoat and neat-fitting breeches, Lord Ballinmore rode out in style. He took the road south to Bandon, larky as a bridegroom. Though he told Caroline nothing, it was evident that he intended to bring back company. The servants had received orders enough to keep them busy during his absence. There was a great scurry of airing rooms, removing dustsheets, opening windows, an assiduous attention to putting a face on things by weeding the paths, facing hedges, polishing the silver.
Caroline had no part in it; the servants
were polite, but they had taken their orders and she had none to give them. She
went for a ride by the bridal paths, played on her harp, perused her treasured
letters. Gwendaline's letters were full of the old
delightful trivia, but, under her gaiety, she seemed increasingly aware of the
“dance of death”. The social scene was changing. Richard Daly's management of
Crow Street theatre had come to an end with a performance of “The Beggars'
Opera” in August. The incoming lessee was Frederick Jones. The elegant
Nick's letters were few and brief. He
was busy. He loved her, he said, and she must take care of herself; there was
no mistaking why. If she had the slightest inkling of threatened danger, she
must immediately advise the commander of the local garrison. He wrote: “I have
little faith that the Yeomanry alone could protect Ballinmore.
Of course, you appreciate my views on the proper duty of the regular military.
They must not be alerted for any frivolous reason. Here one is aware of the
true role of an army ..... defence
of the realm. The shadow of Bonaparte dominates
Tomorrow, she resolved, she would write and demand that he tell her where he had hidden her thigh-band. It seemed to be the only heritage she had ..... except the black box. Tonight she would open Aunt Millicent's treasure trove.
It was coming close to the shortest day. She retired early. As she climbed the stair, head high, she ignored the staring ancestors. She had an elated feeling that she was about to experience a closer acquaintance with her own.