It was the abhorred strains of the Shan Van Vocht that greeted Lord Ballinmore as he drove up before the closed door of his own mansion. His loud knock was not immediately answered. As he entered there was a retreating echo of soft-soled shoes along the corridors. There was no immediate sign that a party had been in progress. Caroline, seated at the harp, was playing a soft, sweet air. She looked completely innocent. There was nothing untoward to be seen except what appeared the defiant stance of a red-haired spailpeen. Refusing to run, Hugh Ro stood, arms folded, eyes wary. Ballinmore's face flushed with anger.
“Well, my man, what brings you here?” he barked, “what complaint do you bring? Or is it work you seek? There are no vacancies. The estate is already ever-burdened. You may go.”
Hugh Ro stood still, not answering.
“What is going on?” Ballinmore demanded, “what have I interrupted in my own house? What was that tune I heard as I approached the door?”
Gwendaline tripped forward to meet the storm. With a coquettish smile, she laid her hand on his arm.
“Dear Lord Ballinmore, you would not grudge us a little music. Hugh Ro O'Moran is a travelling minstrel, not unknown in these parts. We merely invited him to amuse us. You cannot think how dreary it can be in this great house with the master away from home. Please do not be angry with silly little Gwennie. I assure you that it is all my fault. I would not offend on purpose. But lah, how I miss the delights of the capital. Can you blame me?”
Of course he could not blame her. Her
winning smile and the soft touch of her fingers were irresistible. Gad, what a
sweet wench she was. If a man had mind to marry ..... but where was Arabella? Sulking in her chamber, no doubt. How he dreaded meeting
her. He had driven post haste from
“Who is your friend, Caroline?” he asked, fixing her with a supercilious eye. To his surprise, she rose and, taking La Pace by the hand, led him forward to meet the hungry, tired and exasperated lord of the mansion.
“May I present Monsieur Francois La
Pace, Lord Ballinmore. He is come from
Ballinmore’s hand fumbled for his pistol butt. His face purpled. He ignored La Pace's polite bow.
“Monsieur La Pace, indeed! I have heard of you, O'Shaughnessy ..... for that is who you are, I have no doubt. Come you to spy or to defy? How dared you enter my house?”
La Pace smiled, a curious, gentle smile. There was great dignity in his slight bearing. He waited patiently for the storm and splutter to subside; at the same time he watched the hand that clutched the pistol. Caroline's voice cut across the storm, ringing clearly and authoritatively:
“Monsieur La Pace is no enemy, Lord Ballinmore ..... nor is he my
brother, who would not steal into your castle in your absence. He is an émigré
The hand that held the pistol dropped slackly to his side. Ballinmore turned weakly to Gwendaline who held his other arm.
“Does your sister speak the truth?” he asked.
“Of course she speaks the truth. When have you discovered her lying? Dear, Lord Ballinmore, you are over-wrought.”
He believed her. How could he doubt this sweet wench who clung to his arm, her great, dark eyes pleading. He extended his hand to La Pace, begged his pardon, excused himself by reference to the troubled times, the need for caution with enemies behind every dyke.
“I am unnerved perhaps,” he admitted. “None can be trusted. Lord Edward betrayed his side. Perhaps he was misled. Too bad he had to die for his folly.”
Hugh Ro smiled sardonically to see the change of face. Now his lordship was all cordiality.
“You must stay and sup with me,” he invited La Pace. “This house you may regard as your home as long as you wish to stay. I shall have my man bring your baggage from the inn.”
La Pace declined the invitation gracefully, but agreed to dine on the morrow. As they prepared to go, the offer of a conveyance having been declined, Ballinmore managed a brief, civil nod to Hugh Ro. His farewell to La Pace was effusive. Why did such a fine young gentleman choose to associate with a spailpeen? But perhaps even that was evidence of aristocratic eccentricity. Ballinmore had supper by the refuelled fire in the hall. Gwendaline sat by him, chattering merrily. Caroline withdrew to the small parlour; he could hear her playing the piano softly to herself. It was pleasant to have so gentle company; but he was not quite at his ease; there was an unsolved problem on his mind. Where was Arabella? He was too weary to ask.
The following day passed pleasantly. Paletti was introduced and his painting unpacked for Ballinmore's inspection. It passed muster, indeed his lordship was delighted. Paletti must join them at dinner. Meanwhile would Gwendaline care to drive out in the carriage? And so an agreeable morning was spent.
While they were away, Caroline made arrangements for dinner. Since it was likely to be Gwendaline's last at Castle Ballinmore, she determined to make it memorable; all the masterless slip-shod habits must be abandoned. Besides the French gentleman had promised to join them; he must see how things were usually done in a fine Irish mansion.
When plans were completed, she turned her attention to something that had been on her mind for some time ..... the black box. It must be removed from her room. Maureen fetched Hughy to carry it downstairs. With Maureen's help, he should be able to carry it quite easily now that the contents had been removed. It was not so for the box proved to be as heavy as ever.
“Are you sure it's empty, ma'am?” Hughy asked.
Caroline lifted the lid and began to explore with her fingers. Under the sheets of paper that lined the bottom, she discovered a false bottom. Hughy prized it up with a pocket knife; it took some time, for the false bottom had been very carefully fitted. At last he wrenched it free. The true bottom was packed with neat little cotton bags, each daintily stitched and fitted with a drawstring. Caroline drew one out. There was a clink of coins. There, craftily hidden was Aunt Millicent’s store of gold ..... the jackdaw horde of a lifetime. Almost speechless with astonishment, Caroline pressed a few coins into Maureen's hand.
“Hush!” she said, “not a word! You will need it when you marry Hughy. Now please, remove this box. I can bear no more surprises.”
When Gwendaline returned, they examined the treasure together, sharing out fairly between them and Lucy. Gwendaline would convey Lucinda's share to her. The books on magic she would bring to Moreton, who collected rare books and manuscripts. There was nothing else, except the picture of the two little girls which, they agreed, Caroline should retain. They carried out the whole operation with a strange solemnity, remembering poor, well-meaning Aunt Millicent.
“Shouldn't we put a share aside for Fergal?” Gwendaline said, “he is one of the family too.”
“No, Gwen, he is not. We never had a brother.”
The whole story came out. Gwendaline listened quietly, for it affected her hardly at all; she had seen little or nothing of Fergal; to her he was a mirage as she had said. Now they must dress for dinner.
La Pace dined with the family. Hugh Ro, who had arrived with him, ate with the servants. This reassured Ballinmore, who had seen them come. He was in a most amiable mood after his drive with the bewitching Gwendaline. He pushed Arabella to the back of his mind. The girls had dressed carefully as for the occasion, Gwendaline in plum-coloured satin, Caroline in her simple muslin gown, their hair demurely bound with filets of ribbon. If La Pace was aware of his own sartorial inadequacy, he showed no embarrassment. He looked calm and dignified in the simple costume he had assumed, a contrast to his host in somewhat outmoded blue satin breeches and embroidered waistcoat.
The kitchen staff, eager to impress, had outshone their best. There was spread a feast of poultry and fish garnished with aromatic herbs. A saddle of mutton came, brown and glistening, from the oven. The best wines were brought up from the cellars. The tables were decorated with nosegays of June flowers. There were silver bowls of fruit ordered in haste from Fermoy. Dishes of brightly coloured jellies sparkled on the sideboard. A huge plum pudding was brought in blazing with brandy. Ballinmore presided with lordly grace, his silvery hair gleaming, his face ruddy from driving about his demesne. He beamed on the company, pleased to have so courtly a guest at his table, delighted to have the lovely Gwendaline by his side instead of Arabella, pleased with Caroline who had arranged everything so well. What smiles were exchanged across the snowy linen, what compliments, what grace. Paletti had never seen quite so perfect a picture; he longed to put it on canvas for ever.
They had scarcely finished their meal,
when the mail was delivered. A brief note announced that Nick Marsmain would arrive on the day after the morrow. La Pace
studied the impact. He saw Caroline start and grow
pale. She seemed relieved to leave the gentlemen to their port. How greedily Ballinmore's eyes followed Gwendaline.
He could guess how reluctant this old roué had been to leave the bright-eyed
Ballinmore drank like a man who had something to celebrate ..... or something to forget. He drained glass after glass of the fine vintage, his face growing ruddier, his voice louder as he drank. La Pace, who drank sparingly, listened patiently to the older man's triumphs in war, in politics and in love. It seemed uncommonly like boasting. Of all his boasts none were more extravagant than those concerning his estates: how well they were run, how many innovations and improvements he had introduced, how happy his tenantry were. But the ingrate creatures were not to be trusted. What landlord could trust the lower orders in these times ..... must be kept in their places ..... that Hugh Ro ..... what was he up to moving about the country? La Pace let him rant on. Through this unbridled tongue he was learning something of the other side of the Irish coin, of the distrust and fear that existed amongst those who seemed assured and powerful. No wonder there was trouble in this distressful land.
After a brief interlude in the little parlour with the ladies, La Pace took his leave. Ballinmore was growing fuddled. He slept in his armchair for some time; then started up, remembering. He beckoned Gwendaline to sit on a low stool by his side.
“Tell me,” he whispered, “where is Arabella?”
“Oh, she left a few days ago, my lord,” Gwendaline said lightly.
“But why did she go?”
“Caroline told her to.”
“You mock me, my sweet girl. You say Caroline told her to go ..... and she went. Have I heard aright?”
“You have, my lord. I think you underestimate Caroline.”
“'Struth I have underestimated her. She is a fine girl ..... fit to be the lady of this mansion ..... well fit indeed.”
His hand closed over Gwendaline’s; a sentimental expression swept ever his wine-reddened face.
“But I know one that would make a finer Lady Ballinmore. Gwendaline my dear, will you marry me?”
Gwendaline laid a cool hand over his. Her voice was gentle.
“Thank you, my lord. I will think about it. I promise.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek, then slipped quietly away, leaving him to his untroubled sleep.