Her first sensation on waking was of lightness. Her menstrual flow had started. Maureen found her in tears. She sobbed out some sort of explanation.
“Don't cry, Miss Caroline,” she soothed, “sure you’re young. There's no use wastin’ your time frettin'.”
“But Maureen, I'm not crying from sorrow. I think I’m crying for joy.”
“Och you couldn't be ..... after losin' the baby.”
“I didn't lose the baby. There was no baby.”
Maureen studied her gravely for a few moments. She had learnt a great deal from her grandmother, who had nobody else to talk to.
“’Twould be one of them false pregnancies, then. It fooled me. It fooled the smart little doctor, him that told Lord Ballinmore.”
“It fooled me too, Maureen ..... fooled me ..... or maybe it was all the talk ..... I'm so glad ..... glad ..... I can't tell you how glad. I feel as light as a feather ..... as if my shackles had fallen off. I'd like to go out and ride Leviathan ..... and gallop, and gallop to the earth's end and the dawning of the sun.”
“Maybe you'd be betther not, unless you want HIM to twig somethin ’. If HE saw you out gallopin' on Leviathan an’ you carryin' the gran’son an 'heir, there'd be wigs in the green an' hair for sale. But maybe you'd rather he knew.”
“I'd rather he didn't ..... yet. He mustn't even guess. Promise you'll never breathe a word, Maureen ..... to anybody.”
“I'll promise all right. I like to see you well treated an' you'll be that so long as he thinks you're carryin' his gran'son. You’ll tell the colonel first?”
“I'll tell him ..... but not yet.”
There was no need to write the letter
now. She did not write that day, nor for many a day. Nothing in the world must
come between her and her liberation. The whole green
These thoughts were random, running about her head like busy ants as Maureen helped her dress. She chose sedate attire and wrapped up warmly against the outward chill of December. She also embarked on a new course that soon became habitual. Every day she would drive out, extending the drive beyond the gates to the village and the homes of the Ballinmore tenantry. Soon she became a familiar sight in her little carriage. She became a welcome guest in the humble homes. Her interest was genuine and it grew as she came to know more of the lives of the peasantry about the estate. They poured out their tales of joy and sorrow and she gave them, not mere sympathy, but all the practical assistance she could. She set up a simple community service of help in times of sickness and deprivation. The resources of the great house and of lesser prosperous houses where she gained sympathy, were lavish. A bowl of soup, a slice of game pie, a tincture of herbs were hardly missed.
More and more the people came out to meet her instead of crouching in their doorways. The better off were surprised and pleased to have her call to see their clean, comfortable homes and express her appreciation of their well-doing. As she moved among them, she learnt a great deal. If she made no progress as a bright “social” hostess, she was accepted in her own right as “my lady”. The late Lady Ballinmore had been somewhat of the same calibre. She had never relished fashionable assemblages, preferring to visit among the poor. In her time and way she had conferred many benefits on them. Though by nature stand-offish, her intent had been fully appreciated and she had been genuinely mourned. It warmed Caroline's heart to discover the respectful affection these poor people had had for the lonely lady in the great house. All the books of her life had not been empty.
Caroline and Maureen, who always accompanied her, brought more than soup and sympathy to the poor; she brought them music and dancing, a feeling of warmth that went beyond charity. She was their angel and, as long as she remained at the Castle, the place would suffer no harm that they could avert. The grapevine vibrated with good news. Many a mansion, in the fateful year ahead, would fall in smoking ruin; Ballinmore was sacrosanct. Caroline had stumbled, unwittingly, into a network of loyalties that she could barely have understood.
All these things were to come. On that first outing she returned to find that a messenger had outridden Lord Ballinmore. He was coming home. It was dusk by the time his lordship's carriage drew up before the door. The castle was a-blaze with lights; lanterns flickered and flamed about the stables; ready hands were waiting to assist the master; the hall door was flung wide; fires crackled in every grate. There was no mistaking the welcome extended to his lordship; welcome was a custom.
The welcome for Arabella was of acceptance. They had had a little of her domineering before and thought her despatched for good. Caroline was to learn, via Maureen, what comments were made in servants' quarters. “She's back again”, “She's got her clutches on him”, “It'll be the sad day for the oul' castle if she takes the reins”, “We were well enough with the young lady; what say will she have if madam rules the roost?”, “He's took leave of his senses!”.
“Ah Caroline,” she said, extending her fingertips, “I see you have settled in. Quite the mistress of Ballinmore. You and I must come to an understanding. We shall have to spend a lot of time together.”
“You need some lively young company, Caroline,” Lord Ballinmore said, lamely. “Arabella will cheer us up.”
In the glow of candlelight the two women faced each other, Arabella regal in her splendour, Caroline young and fresh-cheeked after her outing. They were of equal height, their only apparent equality. Beside them, Ballinmore seemed to shrink. Arabella set about establishing her position immediately. Dissatisfied with the apartment chosen for her, she insisted she must have a room overlooking the lake. She must have a personal maid. Supper must be served immediately.
In the fortnight or so that followed, Arabella made no serious attempt to control the household. She was completely occupied with exercising her influence over its master. They drove out together every day, dined together, spent their evenings by the fire in the small parlour where Arabella entertained him with music, consoled him with flattery, wooed him with caresses. It did not seem to matter whether Caroline was present or not. She was meant to see what was happening.
As a dutiful wife, she would report to Nick. This she had no intention of doing. She had more important secrets to keep. This was none of her business. She was free to go her own way, as they did theirs. When he noticed her at all, Lord Ballinmore was extremely solicitous for her welfare. He never forgot for a moment how vital her role was. When Arabella was not looking, he would pat her on the hand and tell her how pleased he was with the way she organised meals or how amicably she managed the servants. Seeing her position and sympathising with her heartily, the servants went out of their way to keep things running smoothly. The housekeeper, who had previously been neither for nor against the new mistress, was now a staunch ally. Caroline really had very little to do. Her tête-à-têtes with the housekeeper were mere formalities.
Arabella's attitude was patronising, though larded with false sweetness for his lordship's benefit. At times she teased with her outrageous conversation and overt flirtation; this Caroline learned to tolerate without a blush. In some ways, she helped Lord Ballinmore to regain his interest in life. She urged him to take an active interest in the yeomanry and to make contact with the local military. They presented themselves at a garrison concert, a meet of foxhounds. They were seen wherever it seemed socially expedient. What need had the lord of Ballinmore to care if people talked?
Ballinmore was so far recovered that he insisted that he must be present for the opening of parliament in the capital. At first Arabella determined that she would travel with him, but eventually she resigned herself to remaining at the castle. In truth, she quite fancied the idea of establishing herself as its queen. She could see a bright prospect. She would liven the old place up. As Lord Ballinmore left in the grey dusk of a January morning, she stood weeping on the terrace as though she were parting from the one great love of her life.