Conn Drynan rode through the night, his mind on his mission. From time to time, to keep himself company, he whistled a few bars of a remembered air. He was not thinking of the Shan Van Vocht, nor indeed what it meant; it just happened to be the air that came to mind. He was surprised to hear another whistler respond with the same tune, a friend presumably. When the tall burly figure stepped from the shadow of the hedge, he knew, from the whistled message that this was not an ambush. He reined in his horse.
“Och it's yourself, Hugh Ro; I'm glad to see you,” he greeted.
“You're riding late ..... and far from home, Conn. But sure, you would be for I heard you had joined the militia. On business you'll be, I suppose.”
“Yes ..... on business,” Conn replied, briefly.
It was a time when discretion advised
against asking too many questions. Hugh Ro asked no more. They fell into step
They parted at a crossroads. As Drynan rode away into the night, Hugh Ro pursued his own
path slowly and thoughtfully. What was
Only the previous day he and La Pace had returned from a week’s-long ramble in Connacht in search of old folk-songs and folk-tales. Even now La Pace was studying his notes by candle-light in the small farmhouse where they lodged. Later on they would be expected to join the family and some neighbours by the kitchen fireside for a session of song and story-telling. Hugh Ro looked forward to that ..... till now ..... now he had no heart for singing. Filled with a strange apprehension, he sharpened his pace. So abruptly did he enter the little room that La Pace started from his studies, alarmed to see so grim an expression on his friend's face.
“We must away,” Hugh Ro said abruptly. “There is something afoot at Castle Ballinmore. I fear for Caroline. I think she may need us. Let us go ..... at once.”
Taking their leave with whatever polite excuses they could muster, they went out into the quiet July night. It was nearing the eleventh hour. With all haste they set off in the direction of Castle Ballinmore, hardly speaking as they walked. Hugh Ro took all the shortcuts he knew; it seemed imperative to outstrip the horseman. They entered the demesne by the back avenue, walking the grass verge soundlessly. Presently they saw the dimly lighted window in the old tower.
In the stable yard they detected a strange vehicle drawn up by the tower’s massive door. Hughy held the horse, which pawed the cobbles as though tired of waiting. Except for the occasional yelp of a dog or a whinny from the stables there was no other sight or sound of life.
“It's the doctor's carriage,” Hughy explained. “I was sent for him an hour or two ago. Oul' Ninny was taken poorly, the young master said. How he foun' out I don't know. It's seldom he goes near the tower. Little he'd care, I'd think.”
“Maybe it's someone else.”
“It could be the bastard. He's supposed to be mad. Maybe he was givin' trouble. There’s somethin’ strange goin’ on up there.”
“What makes you think so?”
“It's the way the dummy has been actin' this while back. She used to come waitin’ an’ whinin' at the kitchen door for anythin' at all they'd give her. Maybe it's that the bastard has got hungry all of a sudden, but it's more she wants all the time ..... an’ better. An' curiouser than that, the young master himself said she was to have all she wanted ..... an' the best of it. Maybe the bastard's gettin' hard to handle.”
“Maybe he is,” Hugh Ro said dryly, “or maybe somebody else is. Where’s Miss Caroline? Would she have anything to do with it? Where's Maureen?”
my lady was gone away ..... visitin'
relatives in the
Hugh Ro started. Drynan had made no mention of Caroline. She was not with her Aunt Rose.
“Where's Maureen, then?” he asked.
“Himself sent her away ..... said her lady didn’t need her any more. Hardly time I had to bid her good-bye. I never seen her since she left one mornin', but I have a notion she's not far away. I think she's lyin' low till himself goes away. She'd never leave Miss Caroline till herself sent her away.”
It was an astute guess. Even at that moment, Maureen was approaching by the back avenue, drawn by the same sense of peril that had inspired Hugh Ro.
Urging the tired animal on, he reached the cover of the woods, undetected. It was very dark and the ground was slimy with moss; branches clawed at his face and barred his progress; the horse stumbled and shied at every unaccustomed sound; drowsy birds awoke, cheeping and squawking in alarm. Slowly and painfully, with many a muttered curse, he advanced towards the barely discernible dark bulk that was Castle Ballinmore. At a safe distance, he dismounted, tied the horse to a tree and crept forward on foot. There was hardly any light showing from the windows. The narrow slit in the wall of the old tower blinked desolately. For no reason that he could think of, it caught his attention.
In the upper chamber of the tower the lantern blinked uneasily. Under the cobwebbed rafters where the night air held its breath, a tableau of four held their petrified positions, waiting for something to give. On the straw pallet the invalid lay so still that only the rise and fall of his chest showed he lived. Above the bandage that gagged his mouth, his eyes stared wildly; his hands were bound beneath the coverlet. Dr Swartz held him rigid under a beady stare. In the centre of the room, Caroline faced Nick Marsmain, head high, eyes cold as a winter sea. Arms folded, he stared her out. The battle of wills raged silently. Now that his father was out of danger, and out of circulation and the estate had been organised to his orders, the yeomanry stirred to vigilance, the workers to obedience, Nick Marsmain, Colonel of Dragoons was eager to be on his warlike way. It only remained to settle the affair of the tower. If Caroline could be wooed away, he would have neither hesitation nor compunction in arranging a fatal accident for William. There was no other way to handle him. Dr. Swartz had always been a willing and well bribed accessory after the fact.
It remained for him to coax Caroline. He had ordered that a fire be kindled in her room ..... flowers arranged ..... everything made ready to welcome her. He had come to her as a lover, wooing her as he had wooed on the night of their first meeting. She found it hard to resist this man who came like her knight to rescue her from the tower. She had vowed to love and obey him. It seemed the easiest thing in the world. And what a dazzling future as “my lady” lay before her. But she could not quite forget the haunted look in Lady Ballinmore’s eyes. She too had been wooed ..... and won ..... and carried her regret to the grave. The beagle pack which had been giving tongue from time to time in answer to the whinnying horses, suddenly broke into a cacophony of barking. When the stir died one hound continued to bay mournfully. Far away its cry was answered by the watch-dogs about the country.
The sound percolated eerily into the upper chamber where a clammy chill shivered trailing cobwebs. Cold sweat glistened on William Marsmain's brow. He threshed around, struggling for release; his eyes implored. Caroline knew, for he had told her, that he would forego his right of inheritance for his freedom. She could have said so now ..... ended it all. But she had no mind to act as intermediary in such a bargain. It was between the brothers. Nick must make some offer ..... even dispute fairly ..... remove the bonds and the gag. But he could not admit, even now, that William was his brother. Nothing was his fault. Nothing ever would be.
“Oh Caroline, why do you treat us all so ill?” he begged, eyes soft and pleading. “You can release that poor wretch with one word. You can remove the gag.”
“And be gagged forever myself?”
“Not gagged, my dearest ..... bound by honour. You love me still.”
“I loved you once, Nick, but you are not the man I loved. You are not the man of honour I imagined. I have seen the devil in your face.”
“The devil!” he hissed. “Then you are a fitting bride. You are evil ..... evil!! Perfidious Eve!”
She stood quite still, staring at him, her blue-green eyes wide with cold surprise. In her ears the sea throbbed. Her blood was a sea in her veins, fluid and restless, taking the shape of its bed-rock, yet eroding the rock that bound it. Marsmain struggled like a drowning man.
“That damned green gown!” he said rantically, “that green defiance! Against my order, you defy me in wearing it. Take it off! Take it off, I say!”
“You loved me once in green, Nick Marsmain. Does the colour scare you now?”
“It does not scare me. Nor do you. I loathe that rebel hue.”
She made no move to obey his command, but stood firm, head high, her eyes mocking his anger. Infuriated, he sprang at her.
“If you will not remove that flag of insolence, then I will ..... Caroline O'Shaughnessy ..... the rebel's devil daughter. You cannot match my strength. You are water in my hands. In my hands you shall be.”
Like water she was. She offered no resistance except a stiffening of the spine as he ripped the green muslin from her shoulders, bared her bosom. The sight drove him to distraction. He bruised the tender flesh, tore off her petticoats. She stood naked and unashamed, her hair falling like a heavy mantle over her breasts, her feet white and slender in the dust. About her thigh the shimmering band of gold shone in the lantern light. It was the last straw. Nick made as though he would tear it off. Only then did she reply to his rage. With the flat of her hand she slapped him hard across the mouth, catching him off balance, making him reel.
The doctor cowered, alarmed that he must witness some unspeakable violence. The sick man ceased to struggle; he closed his eyes and prayed. The deaf mute, who had seen everything from the doorway, scrambled down the dark stair. Hugh Ro and his companions, standing in the shade of the tower, heard the huge door groan open ..... wide open, for the first time in years. The old woman beckoned frantically. Followed closely by La Pace and Hughy, Hugh Ro took the slippery stair.
The three men were momentarily stunned by the sight that met their eyes. Marsmain glared like a cornered tiger, his face white except for the burning bruise across his mouth. There was murder in his eyes. Naked and beautiful as Aphrodite rising from the foam, Caroline stood before him, her skin pale as pearl, her nipples rosy, her hair a burnished mantle about her white shoulders. At her feet lay the rags of her green gown, the lace of torn petticoats like froth on a green sea. Clasped about one pale thigh, the golden band shimmered; one hand protected it, the other was raised to shield her face. There was no one else to be seen except the prisoner on the straw pallet.
The doctor crouched, unseen, in shadow, waiting a chance to escape. This was no moment for awe or admiration. The naked woman was no ethereal vision; the man with murder in his eyes was not a spectre. Marsmain, apparently unaware of the intruders, prepared to spring; his hands reached out. Hugh Ro leapt forward into the ring of light. Marsmain’s reaction was swift; he drew his pistol, levelled it at Hugh Ro's heart. Finger on the trigger, he stood smiling. This dog's life was of no account; mad dogs must die.
Caroline did not hesitate. She thrust her body between them, grasped Marsmain's arm. He tried to shake her off, but she clung like a tigress. It took all his strength to hurl her off. She fell across the straw pallet. Her head struck the stone wall. Before darkness blotted everything out, she had a momentary glimpse of a lithe, powerful figure, leaping, catlike from the shadow. Marsmain fell to the floor with a sickening thud. Maureen arrived at the top of the stair just in time to see Hughy fell the young master. There was no time to cheer. She had met the doctor slinking away after his horse and trap which was careering down the back avenue. He had gained only a few yards from the back gate when she overtook him. He did not want to return; he did not want to know what happened; he was a terrified man. But Maureen would take no refusal. Fearful and trembling he allowed himself to be lugged back to that tower which had haunted his dreams for years.
When he reached the upper room, it seemed to be largely inhabited by the dead and dying. Hugh Ro and a complete stranger knelt by the prone body of Nick Marsmain. Hugh Ro had felled the enraged and incautious stable boy; he knelt on Hughy’s chest, pinning him to the floor. Two forms sprawled on the straw pallet in the shape of a crude cross; both white and still as death. The doctor wished himself far away. But he must see to his master.