He knew he had blundered, but it was too late now. As he had ridden up the long avenue in the clear sun, he had felt powerful as fate, bearing the keys of life and death. The duel purpose of his journey was to secure the cornerstone of land and lineage: to be present for the birth of his son and heir (for a son the child must be), and to eliminate finally all threats to his inheritance. It would be a simple matter to silence the ghosts in the tower forever, make their deaths appear natural. Their bodies might not be discovered for months, even years. There would be no questions. The death of a daft deaf-mute or of her idiot bastard would count for no more than the death of a spider.
Caroline, in her brave innocence, had foiled him; but not completely, for, if he handled her gently, she might be persuaded. If only he had stalled her till the morrow, he thought, the dire deed might have been done and no evidence left to incriminate him. She might believe that the devil had spirited Ninny and her son away. More likely, she would accept that they had been helped by human agents to escape the justice they merited by their deceit. There was no use in turning over the alternatives in his mind, for he was already near the door to the tower, Caroline by his side. He inserted the key in the lock, then turned and took her in his arms.
“Oh my darling, darling Caroline,” he murmured between kisses, “you are going to see for yourself how a man can be betrayed. You will be my true and loving wife. You will stand by me ..... trust me ..... I need your trust. I need you.”
She yielded to his caresses, as always, like wax in his hands. She would not resist him now, but he must curb his passion till this matter was settled once for all; it was not easy. He had to force himself to unlock the door.
By the light of the lantern they saw the grim chamber with its stacked bales of dusty wool, its cobwebbed wine casks. There was no sign of Ninny; her straw pallet was empty and cold. The thought crossed Marsmain’s mind that, with luck, this ridiculous errand might end here. Maybe Caroline had never gone farther than this and the rest was fancy, or rumour. He attempted to joke about the smuggling trade and how it had supplemented the family's fortune. Caroline was not listening. She made straight for the door that led to the stair, beckoning him to follow with the lantern. The upper chamber was exactly as she had seen it before. This time the figure on the bed was wide awake. He started and raised his head, staring. Under the meagre blankets, Caroline could see him tremble as Nick approached. He covered his eyes with a thin hand. A cry broke from his lips. It was the same terrified, tormented cry she had heard in the night so long ago. Marsmain thrust the lantern into her hand and leapt forward till he towered over the shrinking form of the man on the bed. His eyes were cold and murderous as steel. The sick man ceased his cry and cowered away from him.
“I have an account to settle with you, Liam,” Marsmain menaced. “You have been telling lies again. How dared you lie to my wife? How dared you distress her? Now you must tell her the truth. Tell her you are not my brother. You are Liam Carney, the son of that deaf-mute witch. That is the truth, isn't it? Tell her the truth, and ask her pardon for your lying. Tell the truth, I say, or I will make you.”
The figure on the bed lay still. His eyes shut out the towering menace. His jaw clenched under the transparent skin; his shoulders stiffened; on the soiled coverlet, his frail hands clutched at the dusty air. He did not speak.
“Stubborn, eh?” Marsmain said angrily, “another of your games. But you cannot defy me. I'll have the truth out of you however I drag it.”
He gripped him by the shoulders and shook him till his head wobbled. There was no response but an agonised moan.
“Leave him alone, Nick,” Caroline pleaded. “It doesn't matter.”
But Marsmain's anger was roused. Nothing could stop him now. He turned a fierce glare on her. His voice was hoarse with rage.
“It does matter,” he said, “it has become a matter of my honour. It was you who disputed that. It was you, not I, who brought this on the unfortunate creature. Now stand off, and take the consequences of your womanish meddling.”
“Speak!” he roared at the sick man, “speak the truth and make an end to this nonsense. Cannot you see how you have distressed my lady wife? You can ease her mind.”
“Then take your hands off me. I swear I will tell the truth. I have no strength to resist you now. Once I was able to leave my mark. You will wear my scar to your grave ..... my fine duellist!”
“Liar! Liar! Liar!”
Marsmain raised his hand to strike, then desisted.
“Your next lie will be your last, Carney!”
The man on the bed lay perfectly still. His face was as pale as death. Then he opened his eyes. They were clear and bright and showed no fear. He fixed his gaze on Caroline's face as though he saw the angel of God to whom he could not lie. When he spoke, his voice was weak, but clear and steady.
“As I must meet God ..... and my mother ..... I swear this is the truth, Caroline. I am William O'Brien Marsmain, true heir to the Ballinmore estates. I was born with a blemish ..... a sickly child ..... my father's shame. Weak in body, I was believed to be weak in mind. I was not fit to carry on the line. My father turned his face from me. Then you, my brother, were born perfect. When the deaf mute's bastard died of fever it was convenient. I too had the fever, and survived. It was easy to substitute one child for another. The worthy Dr. Swartz did not look too closely. I took the place of Liam Carney. Nick supplanted me. He grew accustomed to the lie. To make sure there would be no discovery, he was prepared to kill me. In the struggle I marked that handsome countenance. I survived the fall down the steep stairs. The deaf mute's bastard had attacked young master, it was said. He was mad. Not only a weakling and mad ..... now crippled from the fall. Dr. Swartz was none too careful how he applied the splints. What did it matter? Who was I? Who cared but my mother? She dared not tell. It was too late.”
Caroline was on her knees by the pallet. She took the trembling hands in hers, soothed him with gentle, hushing words. He smiled.
“You believe me?” he whispered and lay content when she nodded her head.
Marsmain stared at the pair. He had never seen Caroline in this gentle role. She had never treated him with such tenderness. She never would now. With horror, he realised what power to make or break him had been committed to her hands. But he had seen those hands control a powerful stallion; they could destroy a man. His eyes found the old woman peering from the shadows, reading the story with her shrewd eyes.
“Go below!” he roared, shaking his fist at her. “Stay there!”
She scuttled away like a scared rat. He was alone with his manifest destiny. This pair looked frail in the wispy light. They could disappear without trace. Without trace? Not Caroline. There would be questions. She looked so sweet and gentle now ..... his Caroline. He could, even yet, bend her to his will. What a wife she would make ..... what a mother for his son? If he had been candid she would have understood. Was it too late to win her back to him? A despairing sob broke from him; she raised her eyes. All tenderness fading, they grew cold. Like steely lances they accused him. Groaning in pain, he knelt before her and laid his head in her lap.
“Oh Caroline?” he pleaded, “forgive me ..... forgive me ..... for the love of God, forgive.”
A cloud of sorrow crossed her face. She made no move to push him away ..... nor to touch him. Her voice was calm:
“I have nothing to forgive, Nick Marsmain. It is your brother's forgiveness you must beg. You must admit the truth ..... make amends for the wrong you have done him ..... the wrong you have condoned. He asks nothing but his freedom to walk in the sun. Castle Ballinmore can be yours, honourably. If you persist in the lie, I cannot live with you ..... share our deception. You could not honour me if I chose to share your shame. Surely it is not so hard to tell the truth.”
“It is impossible now. The disgrace would ruin my father.”
“He has lived with disgrace for a long time. Surely he has some conscience left. Neither he nor you has suffered as this man has. It is high time to make amends.”
“Are you hinting that you may betray us, Caroline?” he demanded, facing her frank stare, trying not to bluster.
“I must do what I believe to be just,” she replied steadily.
At this he lost all patience. He towered over her, scowling.
“Don't dare to threaten me. If you are to be my wife, you must learn to obey. You will not throw away the chance of being lady of Ballinmore for a mere whim?”
She remained still and silent, facing his menace. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Very well, my little viper, since you are poisonous, you must be kept where you can do no injury. Where better than in this cage ..... this very tower. I wager that a few days with the spiders will help you to change your mind.”
“I do not fear spiders.”
“The ravings of this madman then, or the ghost of Lady Adeline.”
“Neither alarms me. Your brother is quite sane ..... saner than you, Nick. Lady Adeline is a gentle shade. As for this tower; in such I was reared; the shadows and the moaning winds are old friends.”
Marsmain’s laugh was more eerie than the shades.
It echoed bitterly through the old tower. Caroline struggled to control her
trembling emotions; her face was the frightened face of a child. For a moment
she would have run to him, begging to be restored to his arms. She would never
know how strong his impulse was to clasp her in his arms and comfort her; that touching, childish look was one he had scarcely glimpsed
before. She seemed so close to yielding ..... and she was, though he never dreamt how close. If only she
had not looked again at the pale face on the ramshackle bed, all might have
been different, she a different person, and their whole destiny changed. But
“I will stay here, if I must,” she said, “I may be your prisoner, but I shall be freer than you. Freer than your mother ever was. I have no wish to assume her burden.”
“Very well, then you shall not take her place. Consider our marriage ended ..... until you change your mind. You never loved me as a good wife should. I will leave you to your thoughts. If you come to your senses, I shall prove more patient than you think. I never held it against you that you were a spirited girl. I never shall. Think, Caroline. Think well. Only I can deliver you from this.”
He swept the grim chamber with a gesture. Then he was gone. The heavy door slammed behind him. The key ground in the lock. He had taken the lantern. Among the grimy rags the sick man began to sob. Caroline knelt by him; cradling his head against her shoulder, she comforted him till he slept; then stretching by his side she waited for the dawn.