“It is quite impossible ..... quite, quite impossible,” Paletti exclaimed. “This beauty that changes from day to day is too elusive for paint. Today, there is such an expression ..... how shall I put it ..... of tranquillity ..... inner light. And yet the chin is so purposeful, and the eyes so lustrous as though they saw the dream clearly and could make it come true. I believe you could make any dream come true. So beautiful ..... so beautiful! Alas my poor skill! You are disappointed, my dear Caroline?”

“Not about the portrait, I can assure you. You have done splendidly ..... flattered me I suspect. Please do not alter anything I beg. My sister grows impatient to return to Dublin and already you have wasted too much time on me.”

“Impossible to waste too much time on you, dear lady. But I shall take your advice. A man has his limitations.”

The portrait was finished and Gwendaline determined on returning to Dublin on the morrow. Paletti spent the afternoon packing his materials. The sisters decided on a last drive, during which Gwendaline still hoped she could persuade Caroline to come to Dublin. But her intentions were to be interrupted. As the little carriage approached the first cluster of houses, they were greeted by an unusual sight, especially in these grim times. The entire population of the village, it seemed, had turned out to frolic in the sun ..... at least its women and children. There was the sound of pipe music. Jigging to the music, they advanced to meet the carriage. Was this a deputation to Castle Ballinmore? No, this was not the day when Lord Ballinmore, or more often his agent, met the tenantry in the library; anyway, he never met the women and children. Humble, apologetic complainants never approached with music and dancing. Caroline saw the burly figure with the uileann pipes under his arm; he walked tall among the children, the sun setting his rough, red hair alight.

“It's Hugh Ro!” she exclaimed.

“Coming to fete us! What a splendid idea to bring some pleasure to that deserted pile! So that is the notorious Hugh Ro O'Moran. A handsome spalpeen, if somewhat rugged, I must admit. No wonder Lucy was ready to dance with him. But who is the charming stranger with him? A gentleman, I'll be bound! A rare sight this, my sweet sister.”

Caroline halted the carriage. Her eyes flitted from Hugh Ro's sunburned face to the tanned complexion of the stranger. He met her gaze with equal curiosity. He had been told that the young lady was beautiful; but this creature with blue-green eyes and red-gold hair was a queen ..... a goddess. It was immediately plain to him why Hugh Ro well nigh worshipped her ..... why that other ..... but that was a thought for another time. Francois La Pace, émigré, had found something more interesting to do than repine the French past surrounded by sympathetic foreigners. Following his own bent, he had come to explore Ireland, a country in the news and little known. He travelled on foot a great deal of the time and, in his wanderings he had made many friends and learnt a great deal at close quarters of what made the Irish what they were. He had picked up their songs, learnt their dancing steps, listened to their conversation and their stories, observed their life and the conditions and terrain of their country.

He had seen many strange things, much sorrow and cruelty and evil; he had seen great beauty. He half believed the things he could not see: of the beauty of Emir and Deirdre and Grainne, the legendary women for whom men were willing to die. If in his solitary travels, he had met graceful elvish warriors with silver spears, he might have closed his eyes hoping the dream were true and if from the purple haze of the mountains or the silvery mist of the sea, a shadowy, blackwinged bird had suddenly appeared, he might have knelt and crossed himself against the war-shriek of the Morrigan. Now he was face-to-face with something as fatal as the war goddess and as beautiful as the legendary women for whom men would die. Like an ancient queen she sat erect in her chariot.

But she was human. Hugh Ro was handing her down. They were laughing together. He was, for the moment, excluded. Then Hugh Ro beckoned him forward for the formal introduction and the clasp of a strong, warm hand. Caroline smiled and Gwendaline coquetted with a glance of her dark eyes. The carriage turned around and, followed by the merry train, returned to Castle Ballinmore. There was dancing on the stately lawns that afternoon, and food and drink for all.

“You have had the promised party after all, Gwen,” Caroline remarked as they sat together on the terrace when the villagers had gone.

“Why did they come?”

“They followed the music; it is well to follow the music, I think.”

“Why did he come?”

“The stranger ..... the Frenchman? I think he came to see us. We are amongst the beauties of Ireland perhaps. I understand he is here to see everything. Perhaps he'll put us in a book.”

“In a book as well as in a portrait! How splendid! What a pity Lucy missed this afternoon.”

“There may be another.”

“You think he'll come again?”

“Almost certainly. Being a gentleman, he must make a formal call.”

She was teasing obviously, otherwise Gwendaline might have suggested postponing her departure.

There was no need to. On the morrow, La Pace arrived early accompanied by Hugh Ro. Together the four drank chocolate on the terrace. Paletti joined them and was only too delighted to have his painting appraised by this “civilised” gentleman from France. In the flutter that followed the informal showing, Gwendaline stole an opportunity to quiz Hugh Ro about the stranger. He had little to add to what was already apparent; La Pace was an aristocrat. Unlike many of his class, he had no interest in the warlike arts, but pursued the study of literature, folk culture, especially indigenous music.

“Will you sing for him ..... and play the harp?” he asked, and Caroline nodded thoughtfully.

“Tonight we shall have a soiree,” she announced. “Pack the portrait again, Signor; think about music; I have no doubt you can recall some of the songs of your country. Let us have, not only Irish music, but Italian ..... and French. Let all battlefields be forgotten for one evening; let us sing together ..... and dance.”

Gwendaline was on her feet already. Her eyes shone.

“Oh Caroline,” she exclaimed eagerly, “how delightful! What an opportunity to wear my new gown; I declare it has seemed positively accusing as it hung unused since I arrived. What an afternoon we shall have preparing. I cannot wait to begin.”

The callers took their leave and the girls repaired to their rooms to consider dress. Tonight Caroline would wear green whatever her sister said; she fished out the satin slippers she had not worn since the last Dublin soiree. Maureen danced attendance, chattering, flattering, trying to interest her in her hair and which of her few pieces of jewellery she should wear.

“The French lord admires you so, Miss. I want you to look as beautiful as ever Miss Eleanor did, even when she danced at the French King's court. Oh Miss, I wish ..... I wish .....”

“What do you wish, Maureen? I am in no humour for puzzles. Speak out.”

“I wish you were not wed to the young master. I wish you were free to marry a finer gentleman.”

In the end it was Gwendaline who took Caroline's dressing in hand.

“How beautiful your hair is, Caroline!” she said as she stood in her lacy petticoats brushing out the shining mantle. “How beautiful you look! Like a woman in love. No wonder Paletti could not catch that expression.”

As the two sisters descended the stairs on that idyllic June evening, Gwendaline in her fresh pink calico, brown ringlets bobbing about dainty ears and Caroline like a sea-maiden in green muslin, a circlet of satin about her burnished hair, they seemed worlds away from the bloody rising that had switched in deadlier earnest from Kildare to Wexford. No hint of hate or war permeated the peace of the great house among the trees ..... no shadow of its own dark secrets.

A fire blazed on the great hearth. The floor was waxed for dancing. Music came floating from the small parlour. They found La Pace, absorbed in picking out a tripping French air on the piano. Paletti tapped out the rhythm with small pale fingers on the knee of his best breeches. The artist had affected a black wig which made him look older rather than younger. Caroline was struck by the youth of the man at the piano. She had had so little acquaintance with youth in all her eighteen years; except for the ragged boys who roamed the country about Dunalla, she had known no contemporary of the male sex till she came in contact with Conn Drynan; his youth had bewitched her for a time. Sometimes she watched Maureen whispering with Hughy in the shadow of the tower and felt a pang of envy. She had never had a playmate of her own age. She had met young men in Dublin but the shining cheek of youth had been betrayed by affectation, their vigour constrained by uniform. She had come to accept that men of her own age were but strutting children. But this man with the fine features and sensitive hands was not much above twenty years old. He turned from his music and came towards her with the light, free step of youth. They would dance together, perfectly matched.

Hugh Ro had organised a bevy of musicians, among them at least two amateur pipers from the castle staff. He had settled them in an alcove of the great hall; already they were testing out the first bars of a slip-jig. Their faces were red from sun or shyness; though it was not unusual for such amateurs to be called to entertain the big folks in their mansions, the custom had been rarely followed at Castle Ballinmore. His lordship usually hired musicians from the city or patronised a military band; Irish music always made his wife so moody; for his own part he was happy to jostle with peasantry at weddings and servants' balls, but he did not welcome them in the castle hall.

Perhaps O’Moran felt as embarrassed as they, but he had a dignity begotten of much experience of great halls and proud people. Paletti was tapping with his toe, eyeing Gwendaline. Any minute now, he would lead off the ball. Hugh Ro forestalled him; with a bow, he swept the bright little figure onto the floor. She was light as thistledown, her small feet twinkled in their patent slippers, her brown ringlets bobbed and bounced; her dark eyes shone; she was pleased as he to be dancing for the pure love of dancing.

For a while they had the floor to themselves; even the lively music could not draw others from looking at this splendidly incongruous pair, she so dainty in her rustling pink dress and pretty slippers, he so tall and muscular in plain homespun shirt and moleskin trousers, red hair wild, feet awkward in pampooties but true to the step, gainly in their movements. Caroline was enchanted to see Hugh Ro so happy and her sister so much her lively self again. If, for a moment, her joy in contemplating them was shadowed by a memory of the pale-faced prisoner in the tower, she was buoyed by the thought that Hugh Ro had come again; somehow, he would help her.

Maureen was not long in breaking the spell; she and her young lover took the floor and soon they were dancing with gusto, eyes only for each other, ears alert to the merry music. Paletti, unable to contain himself any longer, picked the first blushing wench who seemed willing, and frolicked into the dance, fitting his steps to hers as best he could. Francois La Pace had already become acquainted with the custom of kitchen ceilidhes. It was with some confidence that he took Caroline's hand and led her onto the floor. All eyes were diverted to follow them. How handsome they were, how well matched in their youth, she in her green gown that made her eyes look like the sea, he fair and blue-eyed, wearing the Irish garb he had adopted: the narrow trousers, waistcoat over an open-necked shirt, hand-sewn skin shoes. So happily did they move in rhythm that they might have been lovers. Caroline was filled with a deep happiness that had nothing to do with wild romance.

Presently there were many dancers on the floor. Shyly, emerging from their quarters, the servants came: the serving maids, the grooms and gardeners, the handy-men and the hangers-on. Timidity dissipated, a mood of general frivolity took over; never had the great hall of Ballinmore witnessed such a spectacle of flaming petticoats and flying feet. The musicians played like men possessed of joy. In intervals between the dances, Hugh Ro and others entertained the panting company with songs and solo pieces. Paletti remembered an Italian song or two; then he tried his hand at juggling which greatly amused the audience. The butler broached a cask of ale.


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                        READ CHAPTER 59