It was a fine April evening when Gwendaline’s carriage swung into the driveway. The trees that had wept over Gerard Seveny were fluttering with fresh leaves. Hearing her approach, Caroline rushed out to greet her.
“Oh Gwen darling!” she exclaimed, “how glad I am to see you. And how lovely you look. You are very brave to travel so far in these alarming times.”
“Not brave enough to travel alone. I brought Morrey.”
Lord Moreton descended and clasped Caroline's hands in his.
“How well you look, my dear Caroline,” he said warmly, “beautiful as ever. But you must not waste all your sweetness in this wilderness, my dear girl.”
“Wilderness Carrie” Gwendaline interjected. “What are these great estates but walled wildernesses. No wonder so many of their lords are so often absent. How lonely it must be for you. We came with half a hope that we could induce you to come back to the city. What a summer you and Lucy and I would have together.”
“I had hoped Lucy would come here.”
“We thought it better that she did not visit this tragic scene so soon.”
In the long evening light Castle Ballinmore looked massive and glum.
“By Jove!” Gwendaline exclaimed, “what a sombre pile! I find it quite overpowering. That sinister old tower makes me shiver. What think you, Morrey?”
“It is very ..... imposing. The old keep tower looks interesting. It seems to be in a reasonable state of preservation. I'd like to see inside. I confess a weakness for antique buildings.”
“Entry is forbidden, I am afraid. The interior is crumbling, they say.”
“I shouldn't have thought so.”
“Perhaps it is Lady Adeline they fear.”
“Who is the Lady Adeline?” Gwendaline queried.
“She is a ghost. I'll tell you her story later.”
As they entered the hall Arabella sailed down the stairway, pausing just long enough to let the guests view her splendour of flowing draperies. She advanced to greet them with great effusion, eyelashes flickering provocatively towards Moreton. It was he whom she welcomed though her embrace was for Gwendaline.
“Dear Morrey,” she gushed, extending a soft, pale hand, “how handsome you look! How elegant! What a joy it is to see a well-dressed man again! What a pleasure to have agreeable company! Caroline and I are simply buried alive in this barbarous country.”
Chattering her delight, she led them into the warm parlour. It was left to Caroline to summon the servants and give orders for rooms to be made ready. She had already decided which room Gwendaline should have. A little consultation with the housekeeper helped her to decide a suitable apartment for Lord Moreton. Supper would be served in the warm parlour; tomorrow the dining-room must be aired; while their guests stayed they would dine in style. “Lord Moreton,” she emphasised, “is used to fine living. He must not find us lacking in grace.” The housekeeper detected the merest flicker of a wink. She was only too pleased to comply. The tone of the place had been dropping steadily since his lordship had the “accident”. Anything was good enough for Arabella’s rabble.
When they were bathed, dressed and seated about the parlour table it seemed appropriate enough that Arabella should play hostess. She had gone to great pains to dress for the occasion and had driven her maid distracted over her coiffeur and the arrangement of her fol-de-rols. Caroline and Gwendaline, simply gowned in pale muslin, their hair neatly bandeaued, looked refreshingly demure. They stole mischievous glances at Arabella. Lord Moreton was studiously polite and attentive to the conversation which was directed almost exclusively to him. Arabella’s superior knowledge of the theatrical world was well aired while he recounted the latest news of entertainment in the capital.
After supper, he obliged by accompanying her on the pianoforte and was generous in his appreciation of her vocal talents. She was in her element. Her full, somewhat florid voice filled the small room. Behind the screen of sound, the sisters exchanged confidences. Caroline told Gwendaline of the “false pregnancy”, warning her not to say a word. Her sister was vastly amused. She was less so when Caroline spoke of her suspicions of Arabella.
“I can see it is high time, Nick Marsmain took some leave. You should not be left here, alone with that creature. Why ever did his lordship bring her here? From what I have heard, he is not without distractions in Dublin ..... quite the merry widower, in fact. But he looks ill; people comment on his appearance.”
After her efforts to entertain, Arabella slept long the following morning. It was fine and sunny. Lord Moreton and the sisters sat sipping chocolate on the terrace. They talked of the fine weather and of the extraordinary mood of gaiety that prevailed in the capital where, under cloudless skies, the fashionable paraded in St Stephen's Green, drove in the Phoenix Park, were borne to and from assemblages and entertainments. Gwendaline depicted the scene with much detail of new fashions in dress, how the short frock-coat with narrow tails behind was the rage for both men and women, how the military style Brutus hair-cut had practically ousted wigs and periwigs.
“My darling sis,” she said, “I see you
still wear green. When you come to
Caroline was not very shocked. She had
lived most of her life close to the raw emotionalism that could be triggered by
mere dress, gesture, mannerism, even the colour of a ribbon. To her the
recounted rumours of tortures inflicted on suspect rebels at a
“If this is how civilised
She was obdurate. There were things to do at Castle Ballinmore. She was in deadly earnest about that, though she could hardly have explained what impelled her to remain. The country air was sweet and beguiling and the weather fine enough for them to be out-of-doors much of the time. Moreton made use of the opportunity to study the organisation and running of a large, patriarchal estate. The Ballinmore agent, impressed by genuine nobility, was helpful and informative. Lord Moreton could go where he pleased, and this he did, noting how things accorded with, or differed from the customs of his own small, liberal demesne. By contrast, this was virtually a feudal institution. He visited the farms and workshops, drank ale at the Ballinmore Arms, was welcomed at the little school founded by Lady Ballinmore for the purpose of teaching housewifery and thrift to the daughters of the yeoman tenantry. He talked with the tenants and with the poor labourers; he invited the comments of carpenters, weavers and woodmen.
It was difficult even for so genial a
person to draw them out, or to fathom the true relations between lord and
underling. He tried to read the nuances of tone underlying the fulsome praise.
If words meant what they said, Ballinmore had no
grounds for advocating defence of property as a military imperative. But Ballinmore's views were none of his business. He had not
come to spy on him but to learn what he could of the true feeling in the
country. The frivolous attitude of fashionable
Arabella had no love for walking but, if dear Morrey chose to walk, she was prepared to walk with him. She pressed him to use her small carriage for longer journeys. She was happy to accompany him and, though she never descended to muddy her shoes, she was happy to wait while he talked with spailpeens and spinsters and patted ragged children on their louse-ridden heads. What a charming eccentric he was. How jealous Gwendaline must be. Gwendaline was not in the least jealous. She found it fun to explore the house with her sister provoking her laughter with her comments. She shuddered at the armoury and antlers on the walls, feigned awe at the oriental grandeur of Arabella's suite.
“Perfect for the Sultana, don't you think. Quite a stage setting!”
The curtains on bed and windows were of finest silk damask. The carpet, hand-woven in the east, was richly coloured.
“Soft enough to deaden the stealthy tread. Patterned to disguise the blood-stains.”
“Oh Gwen, how horrible!” Caroline exclaimed, then laughed as her sister hid her face behind a gorgeous fan she had picked from the dressing table.
“How grim, they look?” she remarked of the family portraits. “They seem to watch every move. I bet they were miserable most of the time; they seem to be wishing the same fate on their descendants.”
They rummaged the small turret rooms with their stores of curios. Gwendaline was as excited as a child let loose in an attic. Caroline, her face and hands dirty, hair tumbling down, rummaged and laughed as merrily as she. They dressed up in antique garments and laughed at the effect. Bedizened in feathers and furbelows, their faces smudged, their hair piled in antique coiffeurs, they mowed and minced and peered in long mirrors, and giggled like children. Gwendaline heard horse’s hooves in the yard. She glanced down at the corner of the yard visible from the turret window.
“Who is that solemn creature?” she asked.
A furtive, dark-clad figure hesitated, scanning the yard and windows. He emerged and darted towards a pony-chaise which immediately wheeled away down the back avenue and was lost among the laurels.
“That solemn creature,” Caroline said slowly, “is the local physician, Dr Swartz.”
“But whom did he come to visit? And why did he enter and leave by the back gate ..... and never so much as pay his respects .....?”
“Maybe he came to see one of the servants.”
“He doesn't come to see servants,” said Maureen who had been helping with the dressing, “except, maybe the housekeeper or Withers.”
“Ninny has her own cures. He couldn't cure what's wrong with her son. It's the head, they say.”
“It seems to me,” Gwendaline said, thoughtfully, “that there is something very strange about that old tower. I think it is time you confronted it, whatever it is, Carrie.”
“It is locked and we are forbidden.”
“Forbidden indeed! Since when did you take heed of forbiddance? Surely marriage has not so reduced you. A woman should be mistress in her own home.”
Over dinner that evening, Arabella was in high spirits. Anyone could see she was up to something.
“Don't you think, Caroline,” she cooed
sweetly, “that we should hold a social evening while our guests are with us;
otherwise they will report to
Caroline was thinking about the shadowy Dr. Swartz. She took very little interest in Arabella's chatter. Gwendaline paid polite attention; Moreton was grave and preoccupied. Arabella rattled on:
“We must all three get together and make a list of guests. Then we shall plan how to entertain them. We must have music; there are some excellent entertainers among the garrisons; I believe there are a few talents among the local worthies. Perhaps we shall have dancing; we must invite some young men .....”
She rambled on, unhelped and unhindered, taking silence for consent. At last, exhausted by her own enthusiasm, she rose and prepared to leave the room.
“I'm sure you will agree with me,” she said, “think it over. Tomorrow we must get together, any suggestions will be welcome. I want my first social evening to be a success.”
She had said “my”, as though she had the right, as though she had not had many social evenings of her own choosing already. Caroline shuddered, remembering the last social evening haunted by Lady Ballinmore's gaunt face and curiously glittering eyes ..... the sudden death that followed the gaiety ..... Arabella remaining to comfort the widower. A musky perfume haunted the room like a presence. It was a great relief when Moreton asked her to play on the old harp. “On my last evening,” he said.