It was a fine June morning when Nick Marsmain rode up the avenue on his black stallion which Hughy had brought to meet him at Fermoy.
Within the house there was a great flurry of excitement. Calm in her plain calico
gown, her hair brushed and shining, Caroline waited on the terrace. Lord Ballinmore, restless and uneasy, paced up and down. He was
ready with many questions to which his son gave swift, abrupt answers. Yes,
there was great unrest. All Wexford was up in arms. A whole-scale rising might
be imminent. The north was seething. But the rebellion would be quashed. Blood
would flow. Let them die for
Brushing aside his father's questions, Nick hurried towards the object of his eyes’ delight. Caroline stared at him, scarcely believing. How handsome he looked. How the sight of him wrung her heart, as it always had done. He had flung off his greatcoat. His uniform fitted like a glove, revealing the perfection of his lean, muscular figure, every line enhanced by superb tailoring. The braid on his jacket glittered in the sun. His spurs tinkled. He was her knight. His eyes compelled her with the old mesmeric physical attraction. She dared not move. He sprang up the steps and swept her in his arms. How lovely she was, his Caroline with the blue-green eyes and the shining hair. She seemed to melt into his embrace; her mouth was warm and eager for his kisses.
“My lovely Caroline,” he said, holding her at arms' length so he could study her face, “how brave you have been to live alone in this great house. I trust you feel it is your home. I believed you could come to terms with it. It is not easy to be the lady of a great house. You have done very well. But what of our child?”
“There is no child. It was a false .....”
“You might have told me. But we have another chance; this time there must be no mistake ..... eh, my girl?”
His look of undisguised desire overwhelmed her. It would be so easy to forget every obligation except that of being the wife of his desire. All that his name and status and admiration could bestow were hers; all she had to do was submit without question. She allowed herself to bask in the sun of his adoration, for the moment powerful in the knowledge that she had command as only a young and lovely woman has over her man. Was not this worth the barter of a quirk of conscience? Gwendaline would have said so had she been there; but she had gone. She had no one but herself to turn to.
They stood for a while, his arm about her, looking out over the lawns and the lake out to the woods and the blue hills, all they surveyed theirs and their heirs for as far as the eye could see or the mind imagine; all else was mirage. They dined on salmon, fresh from the river. The table was bright and pretty with flowers as it had been for La Pace. In a moment of sentiment, Caroline had asked the cook to make meringues.
A scent of roses, warm in the afternoon sun, floated in by the open window. Ballinmore was loquacious, even jovial and his son and he seemed on the best of terms. How would it be when Nick discovered his father’s romantic involvement with Gwendaline? But surely Gwen would not dream of marrying this old man. Caroline put the thought from her mind. She basked in the sun of her husband's approval.
Determined to give him no cause for grievance, she had banished Maureen from the little dressing-room and replaced his mother’s water-colour in its former position; there was nothing to show that she had discovered the secret cupboard ..... nothing except the slim gold band that clasped her thigh. Her face grew grave as she remembered it ..... the other discovery. Nick was smiling at her. Every now and then, in the course of the conversation, he deferred to her. Their shoulders brushed. Time and again, he clasped her hand under the table. He fed her meringues as though they were kisses. Bewitched by his caresses, she began to doubt her own judgement of him. It must be Ballinmore’s fault that the crippled brother was kept a prisoner in the tower. Perhaps Nick disapproved. She would talk to him. He would explain everything. He would see justice done.
They strolled out on the terrace hand-in-hand. The lake was shimmering under the declining sun. The paths were dry. They walked by the still waters, his arm about her waist. He drew her into the rose arbour and there they remained, locked in a lovers’ embrace, hardly speaking. She touched the scar on his cheek, gently tracing its faint line. They said the scar had been for a long gone foolish love; her love would leave no scar. Suddenly she drew away from him.
“What is the matter, my darling?” he asked, “did something startle you?”
She shook her head, but made no reply. For minutes silence hung between them like a silken arras of susurrating waters and sighing trees. A silvery moon stared blankly from a darkening sky. Caroline shivered.
“Come,” he said, “let us return to the house. The air grows chilly and you have only a thin shawl.”
“I am not cold, Nick; there is something I must ask you. I cannot be completely happy till you have reassured me.”
“If you need assurance that I love you, then your question is answered. Surely you can see .....”
“It is not that.”
“Then you think I have been neglectful. I can explain.”
“You need not.”
“Surely you do not think I have been unfaithful. I swear I have not been.”
He was lying. She guessed that and she did not care very much. She had seen enough of fashionable society to know its usages. She did not wish to hear him swear that he had kissed no rosy mouth since hers.
“Hush Nick,” she said softly, “let us not quibble over trifles. I have a more serious question to ask. I must know the plain truth.”
How sweet she had been just minutes before, how gentle and yielding in his arms. Now she stood, erect and adamant at arms' length, looking solemn, demanding the answer to some perverse question. Yet he must humour her. She was the wife he had chosen. How trying a wife could be; all that his rakish companions had suggested was too patently true.
“What is this so important question?” he asked testily.
“Is your brother really dead, Nick?”
“What a preposterous thing to ask! And quite unnecessary, since I have already told you all there is to tell. William died of fever. His coffin rests in the family vault. He was always delicate. It is doubtful if he could have survived to reach manhood even if he had not caught the fever.”
“Poor William! How distressed your mother must have been.”
“I believe she was. I am told she was a bright, lively young woman. I remember her, as you do, remote and melancholy. I suppose she brooded a great deal. She never talked of William. Perhaps it pained her, or perhaps she did not wish to upset my father.”
“She loved him then?”
“I do not think she ever loved him as a wife should. She did what was expected of her as a dutiful wife and mistress of a great house. She observed the social conventions to perfection. Otherwise, she followed her own devices: painting, visiting the tenants, supervising the school for girls to learn handicrafts. Father did as many men do in such a situation; he found his consolations elsewhere. There were other women. And there was Daly's club.”
“The gaming club in Dame Street in Dublin?”
“Yes. He was not a lucky gambler. My mother brought him a fortune. He gambled much of it away. Maybe that is why she appeared to resent him. Not that they quarrelled much. They lived like strangers.”
Caroline had been listening with interest. He had been trying, as he talked, to steer her towards the house, but she evaded his intention by loitering, looking back towards the lake.
“I should like to see where William lies,” she said suddenly.
“What a peculiar wish. Rather morbid really. But, of course, if you still wish it, I promise to take you one day.”
“Why not now?”
“Are you teasing me, Caroline? It is quite dark in the vault. You may find it frightening.”
“It is always dark in a vault, Nick; the daylight makes no difference. I want to go now. Please Nick, I mean what I say.”
His laugh, though derisive, made no difference. Her face had its stubborn look.
“Very well,” he said, “if I must indulge your macabre taste, then let us go.”
He took a little-used path through the shrubbery, striding ahead impatiently. He had not walked that path since the day of his mother's burial and of this he had no wish to be reminded. Presently they came to a small private chapel lurking among mournful yew trees. In the vault below its flagged floor rested the bones of those proud ancestors whose fixed expressions past artists had committed to canvas to intimidate those who would be intimidated. Caroline recalled their blank stares as she squelched through the dewy grass, her gown flapping wetly about her ankles. Nick showed no concern. Perhaps if she got her feet wet she might desist. Perhaps the eeriness of the unlighted chapel among the brooding trees would discourage her.
He pushed open the rusting gate and followed a narrow path to the chapel door, then waited in the porch till she caught up with him. He felt her shudder as she touched him and, taking her face between his hands, he turned it till the ghostly moonlight fell full upon her. There he held her in silence, letting the eerie magic of the place take effect; the despairing sigh of wind in long grass, its pluck at her damp skirts, its clammy touch on her cheeks.
A chill rose from the cold flags of the porch. The thicket rustled with sinister sounds. Far away a dog lifted its voice to bay at the ghastly moon. On every leaf and blade a dewy eye blinked malevolently. He waited, face and hands cold as stone, eyes grim steel. On his jaw the pale scar curved snake-like as a devil-mark. Suddenly an owl rose, flapping and shrieking from an ivied tree. For the first time, Caroline started.
“Well, my little fool,” Nick said coldly, “have you had enough of this nonsense? Isn’t it time we went indoors?”
“Yes,” she answered firmly, “I want to see William's coffin.”
“How perverse to twist my words. Since you persist, let us go in; but, first, you must wait here till I fetch the key and a lantern.”
He strode off, expecting to hear her follow. Then he would pick her up and carry her back to the house and the warmth of the fire. In the warmth of the bed he would reduce her to submission if not passion. Out of earshot, he slowed down, listening for the frightened footsteps or the sound of her cry.
There were no light steps, no frightened cry, neither on his going nor on his return. As he retraced his steps, there was no sound except the mutterings of the night. Perhaps he had delayed too long. Perhaps she had fainted. So be it; he could carry her away and forbid her ever to make childish requests again.
Caroline stood where he had left her. She showed no sign of alarm nor of the hope she still cherished that he would vindicate himself. The chapel was cold as a deserted tomb. Its heavily carved furnishings stood immobile as tombstones. On the pew ends, strange effigies writhed as though startled by the sudden light. On the walls brassy-faced memorials gleamed murkily. High in the rafters a bat stirred and scrabbled. They stood in silence till the steady light restored the trance. The place was dead, a place for burials. She had a momentary vision of all the dead sitting, transfixed in serried rows, their deaf ears echoing with too-late fulsome tributes. A titter of ghostly laughter stirred in her mind. She shuddered.
“Come now,” Nick said firmly, “this is enough of melancholy. Let us leave the dead to rest in peace.”
“I have not seen the vault yet ..... William's coffin,” she answered quietly.
He did not offer to help her down the dusty stair, nor had she need of help. The faint beams of the lantern revealed a vaulted chamber with a flagged floor. Around the rough walls ran a series of heavily planked shelves on which reposed the coffins of ancestry and kin. Time had played havoc with the older coffins, some of which bulged and cracked at the seams; at any moment a skeletal arm or a shrivelled foot might force its way free. In the flickering light embossed silver handles and ostentatious nameplates winked and leered. Wisps of cobweb hung like shroud-rags. Spiders watched from ancient many-faceted eyes.
“This is my mother's coffin,” Nick said, indicating a handsome, incongruously shining box with yet untarnished mountings. The adjacent space was vacant; Lady Ballinmore lay waiting for her unloved lord. They moved on to a smaller coffin resting alone. Caroline bent to read the inscription.
“Well, are you satisfied now?” Nick asked, holding the lantern close.
“Not entirely,” she replied, facing him, “I want you to lay your hand on this coffin and swear that, as far as you know, these are the bones of your brother.”
He turned on her a look of consternation and anger.
“Is there no end to your perversity?” he demanded. “How often and in how many macabre circumstances, must I tell you the truth before you believe me? How many such inquisitions must I undergo?”
“But this one, Nick. Do as I ask. I shall not leave here till you do.”
He raised his hand as though he would strike her. She did not flinch, but faced him like a mythical queen waiting to be obeyed. He made a last struggle.
“You know I could lock you up in this vault till you come to your senses ..... or till .....”
“I die?” she responded, and stood waiting till he could neither bear nor face her cold eyes any longer. With a shrug, he laid his hand on the coffin and repeated the words of the oath. They echoed hollowly around the chamber.
“You have sworn on the coffin of your elder brother. If you lied, his spectre will haunt you till the day you die.”
He turned away abruptly and hurried up the stair and out into the purer air. Caroline was by his side almost at once. Like a moon-goddess she sailed past him. In the moonlight her shadow fell across his path. She turned, her face in shadow.
“You have sworn,” she said softly, “that your brother lies in the vault below. Tell me then, who is the prisoner in the tower?”
“Ninny's bastard ..... and mad as he is.”
“Not mad, Nick, but crippled. I have seen him. I have spoken to him.”
“That iniquitous hag! She let you in. You had no right to enter the tower. Didn't I forbid it? That wretched creature shall suffer for her mischief, make no mistake. She should have been locked in bedlam long since. My father was a fool to trust her to behave ..... keep out of sight.”
“Poor Ninny is blameless. I found your mother's key. If she could enter, why not I? Why did she want to?”
“She did it out of charity. It gave her some gruesome satisfaction to minister to the maimed and mad. But for her care, he would have died. It would have been better so.”
“Why hold him captive?”
“He is no captive. He is free to go.”
“Climb down the slippery stair? He is a cripple. Why not let him go ..... let both of them go. Some charitable institution would receive them.”
“They would be worse off in bedlam. Cannot you see they are both demented?”
“Distraught, not demented. He pines for green fields and the warmth of the sun. Why must he remain hidden like an evil deed? Even the servants do not speak of him.”
“Your tale-bearer is correct. They do not speak of him. They fear the mad.”
“I do not believe he is mad. He talked sensibly.”
“Raved of an exchange ..... of injustice?”
“Told his tale.”
“And you, little fool, believed him. You have a tender heart, but you must not let your sympathy cloud your judgement. It will not help him. His condition has no cure. You must not let it distress you. Come in and let us banish these morbid imaginings with a bowl of punch. Tomorrow, in the light of day, you will see clearly. I will take you to the tower myself.”
“Now, Nick. I cannot rest ..... or love you truly ..... till I am convinced. Oh Nick, cannot you see I want to believe you. I want no shadows between us.”
“Very well,” he said, “come.”