In the first dim light of morning, Caroline woke to the rancour of rooks calling for rain. Across a lead-dark sky, clouds scurried before a complaining wind. About the house the wind muttered ominously. She shuddered under the bedclothes. Soon she would be alone, but for the servants, in this muttering house. Out of the mists of waking dream an image rose and shaped itself to the dark tower. Would the old key fit? Dared she try it? She rose and wrapped her doeskin about her. Why should she fear ancient towers? She moved swiftly and silently along the west corridor. The massive oak door stood between her and the secret of Ballinmore. She inserted the key in the rusted lock. It took all the strength of her wrists to turn it. At last the bolt shot back; the door creaked open. Cobwebs trembled; a rat scuttered away; there was a startled flap of pigeon’s wings.
Huddled shapes cowered in the gloom. Presently they defined themselves as great bales of wool. They formed a barrier between her and the room beyond. Bales of wool! So the tower had been used as a store, not recently, for the bales were thickly layered with dust. She skirted that barrier to discover another: a cache of wine barrels; they too were shrouded in dust and cobwebs. So the lord of Ballinmore had engaged in an illicit two-way traffic with enemy France. A peer of the realm had not been above evading His Majesty’s excisemen. But why should they think it necessary to conceal this smuggling activity from her, the daughter of a renegade chieftain/earl?
She moved forward cautiously, her slippers stirring layers of dust. Beyond the hoard of wine and wool, the chamber appeared empty except for a scatter of miscellania: pieces of furniture, sacks and chests, odd trumpery that had been discarded. She peered into the gloom, moving forward cautiously through the debris.
In a far corner she came on a heap of straw. A bundle of rags sprawled upon it, took shape and began to stir; a pale face reared itself slowly from a lumpy pillow. It seemed to hover in the gloom, eyes staring, cheeks hollow and rutted with dirt. It opened its mouth as though to scream. No sound came from the gap-toothed mouth. The deaf mute rose slowly from her couch and stood almost as tall as Caroline herself. Close to she looked dark and menacing. Then with a smirk she stole away into the shadows; her footsteps creaked on the descending stair. There was no point in pursuing her; she could not speak.
Caroline's eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness. She let them wander over the room. It was so like the great hall at Dunalla, the walls bare of plaster and built of solid stone. There stood the remains of a smoke-blackened hearth; the floor, like Dunalla’s appeared to be of oak and probably also rested on stone vaulting. Remnants of ancient tapestries clung wispily to the bare stone. At the far end there was an arched doorway leading to the stair. The door by which she had entered was no part of the original construction. It may have been a slit window, enlarged to form an entrance to the covered way that led to the new mansion.
The pointed archway to the spiral stair was the only other exit. If the old woman could descend safely, could she. Or ascend. The walls were sound; the spiralling stone steps, worn by the footsteps of centuries, were firm under her probing feet; the poor light nor the steepness could not deter her who had crept up and down the spiral at Dunalla. She climbed to the chamber above and pushed open the door in the archway. The room was lighter than the store below; it was from the wider window in this room she had first seen the flickering candlelight on the night of the Ballinmore ball.
A slight rustling movement alerted her. It could have been a rat. But she heard breathing. There was some creature in this room who breathed like a human. Perhaps the Lady Adeline. In the breathing silence she waited. A low moan broke the stillness. Caroline’s first impulse was to run. What if that moan rose to a scream? She braced herself and stood steady. There was no further sound, but the whine of spectral winds about the tower, and the soft shuffle of her footsteps, as she advanced. In the clearing light, she saw a rough wooden table. Her fingers found a wooden bowl; it contained the cold remains of a supper of gruel; beside it stood a porringer that might have contained milk. There were stale crumbs, suggesting that someone ate here habitually. The deaf-mute of course. But her fingers touched something else: an open book; there was a pile of books. It was unlikely that the old woman read as she dined. Caroline drew the open book nearer the window. It was well thumbed; some passages were underlined; there were copious notes in a neat, scholarly hand in the margins.
Before she could decipher any of the print, she heard a faint cry. On a straw pallet, a bundle of ragged blankets began to stir; a head and shoulders disentangled themselves; thin arms struggled in an effort to raise the wasted frame from its pillow. The face was thin, fine-boned and pale as death; the eyes seemed black in their sunk sockets. The thin lips, half hid in a rough stubble of beard, began to move.
“Who are you?” came a faint query. “What have they done with my mother?”
The hands were reaching out to her, pathetic and helpless as a child’s. Her fear was suffused in pity. She moved towards the figure on the bed and knelt by its side to hear the gentle voice. She took the thin, pale hands in hers and felt them relax. The emaciated creature sank back on his pillows, eyes half closed.
“I am Caroline,” she said, “Caroline O’Shaughnessy from Dunalla in the county of Galway.”
“How come you here, Caroline?”
“I am Nick Marsmain’s wife.”
She felt a shudder of pain pass through the frail body; the hands fluttered. The man struggled to speak. When his voice came it was weak and shrill:
“Nick Marsmain’s wife! How dared he wed so lovely and kind a woman! How dared he bring her to live in this ill-starred house! Fly, my dear! Fly before the curse falls. Remember the Lady Adeline!”
Caroline surrendered the trembling hands, covered them with the meagre blanket. She touched the pale brow with gentle fingers, surprised that, skull-like as it seemed, the flesh burned. This poor human was ill ..... or demented.
“There, there,” she soothed. “Lie still and rest. No harm will come to me. Let poor Lady Adeline rest in peace.”
He struggled to raise his head again. His eyes were burning, his voice a hoarse croak:
“I shall not rest, nor can she till this tower is cleansed of all its evil. She will not rest till she has avenged her wrong. I believe it was for my mother’s sake she held her hand. For you she may desist also. But she grows impatient for revenge. She is restless. I feel her presence in the still of night. Her hour is coming round.”
“But why should she wish to avenge her wrongs on the house of Ballinmore? Her wrongs were of an earlier time.”
“That is true. Her wrong was avenged; its perpetrators suffered. They are scattered like the wind ..... forgotten. But she was not released from this prison ..... this uneasy grave. My burial disturbed her fitful sleep. The ancient evil haunts the tower still. It would wed me with her in death. But I am not yet dead.”
“Who are you?”
The question was greeted by a bitter laugh.
“Of course you do not know. They would not want you to know. You were told that I, the elder son, died young. My coffin lies in the family vault. The bones are there. They are not my bones.”
“The bones of the deaf mute's bastard, as rightful an heir as any, if justice were natural. I am her bastard now, the maimed creature who could never inherit. The family line must continue in health and vigour; only the unblemished can be the bearer of that line ..... the chieftain. Was ever a chieftain chosen except without blemish?”
“Chieftains were elected; primogeniture did not entail succession.”
“There was nothing to hide. Irish laws were kinder to the weakling; he was not expected, nor did he expect, to succeed. Our rule of primogeniture assumes ..... demands ..... perfection in the firstborn. A blemished firstborn son is a family tragedy. I was that tragedy. Nick was the perfect heir; fate seemed to have chosen him. The deaf mute's child died fortuitously; she had always concealed him in this tower; it was easy to substitute one corpse for another. My mother wept and pleaded, but who listened? She did what she could to make life tolerable for me. She salved her conscience with good works. What have they done with her, Caroline? I know you will tell the truth.”
His voice was a husky whisper; his eyes were points of fire. She was fearful but determined to tell the truth.
“Lady Ballinmore is dead. She died in her sleep. She suffered no pain.”
He was overcome with grief, his face distorted, his whole body trembling. Then the tears came, rolling down his hollow cheeks. Caroline slid her arms about his frail shoulders, drawing him close till his head was cradled on her breast. She stroked the pale, silk-fine hair, rocked him till the spasm of weeping passed.
“You are good, my sweet Caroline,” he murmured. “You deserve a happier life than my mother had. But she brought her suffering on herself. She was weak. You would not betray your firstborn child?”
“I would never do that,” she replied firmly.
“I have never wished for power,” he murmured to himself. “I wanted to read and paint ..... and play a musical instrument. I would have abdicated the title. But I was allowed no choice. My father was incapable of understanding resignation. I might have chosen the religious life, but he turned my god into a devil. I have sought the peace of the true god, but there is only evil in this tower. Tell me, Caroline, does God walk the happy fields outside? Could I find him there?”
“I believe you could. You must be given the chance to seek.”
His face lit with wan pleasure. He clutched her hand.
“You will set me free! I shall see green woods and silvery waters again!”
A shade crossed his eager countenance.
“If I am freed, the secret will be freed also. I shall be pursued like a hunted beast.”
“I know a place,” she said calmly, “where you will be safe from all pursuit. It is an island in a lake. God walks there, I am sure, with the old friar of Gougane Barra.”
“But that is far away. How shall I travel? I am completely crippled.”
“I will find a way. Give me a little time. I must leave you now. It is morning and I shall be missed. I will come again. I promise.”
She bent to kiss the thin cheek that burned with a fever of hope. He clung to her hands a moment, then let go.
“I will wait for you, my angel,” he sighed.