Hullabaloo in the bawn! Clatter of hooves, rattling wheels, the squawk of startled seagulls, a woman's voice raucous as theirs. The bright sun of morning splintered the waves in the creek, slit the tall window, threw a broad beam across the sealskin coverlet. Caroline leapt out of bed and ran to her window. Below, by the big door, stood a gig with a high-stepping horse snorting and pawing the cobbles. Sweat glistened on his flanks. Bolt upright, gripping the reins in strong, brown hands, sat a woman with a huge driving-cape about her and hair, every pin shed, streaming over her shoulders like a rusty shawl. Rose O'Shaughnessy Drynan was in fine voice.
“It's a fine thing,” she was saying, “to drive all the way from Athenry in the sharp air of morning and find none but yourself, Bridget, to greet me or offer bite or sup. Tell Maureen to call that lazy child from her bed.”
“I will this minute, when I get Maureen herself up. Sure it's welcome you are, Miss Rose, an' you'll get bite an' sup in a brace of shakes. The kettle is on the boil, as it ever was whatever time of the day or night you chose to come home. My taypot has never cooled since the tay came to the west. Many's the good drop of scald you had from it. Times with the sup of poteen in it too. Eh?”
“You're right, Bridget. It's not you I'm blaming for the lack of hospitality. It's the ladies who would lie long and let me break the fast alone with the ghosts in this tomb of a place.”
Caroline picked up one of Maureen's pampooties that lay where she dropped it. She threw it from the window. It struck the side-board of the gig. Rose looked up.
“So you're stirring, are you?” she called. “Get dressed and come down!” Caroline scrambled into a cotton dress, brushed her hair, splashed water on her face and hands and hurried from the room. As she closed the door behind her she felt the wet stickiness. In the dim stairwell, she could not see. Her hand smelt of fresh blood. It was splashed on the door, the wall, the stone stairs.
Her foot struck something soft. She picked it up. It was the body of a pigeon, a half-grown nestling; its head had been ripped from its body and was nowhere to be seen. Unnerved, she felt her way down the steep spiral, feeling for the steps as though they were strange to her, or as though some stone slab might have been spirited away. It would not have been easy to remove a step, except by magic; the stair had endured centuries of thronged and desperate times.
Emerging to the light of the big room, she saw Rose Drynan pacing the floor, whip in hand. With her dark cloak and flowing, stringy hair she looked like a witch. She turned and faced Caroline, her mouth open to speak, opening wider, aghast at the sight of the dead bird in her hand, its blood dribbling down her bleached, cotton dress.
“It must have fallen down the stairs,” Caroline explained without conviction.
“And lost its head on the way. Not likely, Caroline; even you don't think that. It was torn off. Ritual slaughter, I'd surmise. Goings on ..... to scare you, maybe. It's high time you were home with me in Moybranach. Unhealthy it is here. Unhealthy company. I know things.”
Caroline stared in bewilderment. Aunt Rose had a way of taking the breath away with her wild surmises, sudden decisions, drastic moves. She had turned the full glare of her fierce gaze from Caroline and was staring at the far peaks of The Twelve Bens, sharp against the morning light, her strong, handsome profile was as rugged as the hills. Powerful she was with her square shoulders and tall, spare frame. At times like this she could be terrifying, yet she was capable of great generosity. There was nothing narrow or constricted about her way of thinking on many things, and yet she could be as hard and straight as a die in her own way. “Headstrong” they called her, and some meant head-weak. She talked to herself, was talking now:
“He was so set on his wild mission, all eager to be away ..... never said a word about his little sister. But he knew I'd look after her. It was on my mind last night, her alone with that witch-woman in this desolate place. It's not fitting for her, all this lonesomeness, and the whispering tongue in her ear. I know what it's like on the wind-howling nights of winter. It used to drive me out. Miles I'd ride to get away ..... looking for comfort ..... the fire in a cottier's cabin ..... the warmth of the rising sun ..... the heat of love .....”
That was not to be told. She turned again to Caroline:
“You'll be lonesome without Fergal?”
“I miss him, Aunt Rose, but he was never here. I'm not really lonely.”
“Of course you have fine company; maybe it's the kind of company you prefer ..... refined and polite-spoken whatever's in the mind. Has she a mind to stay, then?”
“I have not the slightest idea what she intends. I'd imagine she'd rather go home to Philipstown.”
“And take you with her ..... teach you how to behave among civilised people ..... fit you to marry a gentleman ..... and I thinking all the time that you were a genuine O'Shaughnessy.”
“I am too, Aunt Rose, but my mother was a Picton.”
“Sure she was. You have the English blood in you. I forget sometimes.”
A light step, and Millicent Picton emerged from the arched doorway. Maybe she had heard the latter part of the conversation; she had a smooth smile on her face. She was dressed for the occasion. In contrast with Rose's dishevelled appearance, she wore black with touches of lace, her hair braided. Head high, she entered the room with something of her old grace. Maybe the way she stroked one hand with the other in turn was not a sign of anxiety; maybe it was a way of drawing attention to their slender grace.
“Good morning Rose,” she greeted pleasantly. “I'm afraid you caught us playing lazybones. I always admired your energy.”
“Ay, it took some, to rise and drive all the way from Athenry this morning. But there's some were up and about as early as I was and as busy, in their way.”
With a swift move, she lifted the dead pigeon from the floor where Caroline had laid it. She held it out. At the sight, Millicent uttered a thin, high-pitched cry:
“How horrible! How very horrible! A threat of some kind, by the look of it. What evil creature got into the keep during the night? The door should be locked.”
Rose gave her a fierce, dark look, burning to her inner mind.
“Strange,” she said curtly, “that you know where this was found. Did you lift your fine petticoats and you coming down the stair? Is there no trace of blood on your slippers, Millicent Picton? It's well you know all about it.”
“However should I know? Maybe it was just an accident. I'll ask Bridget.”
“You can ask her this minute. She's coming.”
It was not Bridget, however, but Maureen coming to set the table. She looked rosy and fresh as the morning, her dark brown hair curling about her ears. What use asking this innocent, half-asleep creature. Millicent shrugged. Rose turned away from her mock smile and, picking up the dead bird, threw it into the bawn. It fell with a soft thud, scattering down on the rough grass. Owen, busy with the horse, pretended not to notice. No help from him. Rose strode to the table and sat down in the big armchair. Maureen flashed a swift smile at Caroline.
“You're growing up, Maureen,” Rose said suddenly. “You'll be marrying and leaving your grandmother one of these days.”
“Divil a marry, Miss Rose. I'm time enough this many a day.”
“Time enough if you never married,” Millicent muttered, taking her seat at the table.
“It's a gran' harvest mornin' anyway,” Maureen said cheerfully as she left them.
Caroline would have preferred to follow her to the warm kitchen below. She had washed her hands in the basin Maureen brought up, but the smell of blood lingered, and the stale, smoky smell of last night's logs, and another, indefinable odour: the scent of battle between these two, passionate, childless women. Hemmed in, she remembered an episode in their long contention. The French dress had made her self-conscious; the child detached and thinking of her looks, had at once been in the picture and apart from it. Against the window light, she saw two tall women leaning towards each other, their faces close in argument, forming a Gothic arch. Framed in the arch of their bodies, the child sat on the big table, swinging her legs. Elegant legs, slender ankles sheathed in pink silk hose, silver buckles shining on patent shoes, a froth of lacy petticoats breaking like foam from the green velvet of her first fashionable dress: a picture child with sun-gilded hair, flushed cheeks and shining eyes, framed in the wood-stubborn arch of angry women.
The scene came sharp and clear to her mind. It was just such a morning as this, so many years ago. She saw the child who was herself bound in by the wills of these women ..... not caring then ..... free in her childish delight with her dress.
It was the same scene again. But she was not a child with a new dress and silver buckles on her shoes, and somewhere, parents who would come to rescue her. She was alone, and the frame was closing about her. It was more than she could bear. Turning swiftly, she ran down the stairs, past the crouching wolf, across the hallway and out into the clear air. The stone horse-trough was brimful of cool, sparkling water. She plunged her hands in, splashing the pure water on her arms and face shedding diamonds all about her. Cleansed of the blood and the anger, the smoky room, the dust of ages, she felt free again. Free of the lingering scent of overblown roses, of flattering words and masterful arms, of imposed duties and conventions. No band held but the slender circle about her thigh and it was warm and golden and would hold against all persuasion or compulsion. If only Fergal were here to share the beauty of the morning with her.
She lingered with Owen and the horses, letting the two angry women simmer down. When she rejoined them they were sitting over the remains of their breakfast. They took no notice of her entry, but sat, stock-still, outstaring one another. For the moment, Rose O'Shaughnessy Drynan appeared to have the upper hand. Millicent Picton gathered herself like a cat and backed away from the table. She took her stand on a vivid red rug that covered a great slab of stone before the hearth. Rose sprang to her feet, towering, whip in hand. Her voice came in a hoarse shriek:
“How dare you to stand on the chieftain's blood! Ignorant woman, don't you know about the cursing stone of the O'Shaughnessys? You know about magic, don't you? You dabbled in the black art in your time, didn't you? Isn't it myself felt your needle in my womb, and I childless?”
Millicent Picton turned deathly pale. She raised her hands in protest or to protect herself. But Rose stormed on:
“Aye, you may turn as white as a ghost, madam. Do you never fear the wrath of ghosts? Surely, and you so interested in Dunalla, you heard it said, ‘When the stranger sits in the chieftain's chair, the chieftain stirs in his sleep. When the stranger stands on the bloody stone the chieftain flexes his sword-arm’!”
Perhaps Bridget heard; suddenly she appeared in the doorway.
“Bridget!” Rose said hoarsely, “tell her. Tell her the story. Tell that no black magic of her brewing can prevail against the ancient geasa (tabus).”
Bridget had known Rose a long time; her rages did not move her. She took her time to begin; her voice was flat and matter-of-fact ..... but effective.
“Long ago it was, in the dark of the moon, that a chieftain of the O'Shaughnessys supped alone in this very room. His enemies had waited long for such a chance. They slipped into the creek below and moored their boats; it wasn't easy, for it was a stormy night and black as pitch. But again, it was a night when the guard wouldn't be expectin' an attack. Poor creatures, they died without so much as a cry out of them, never mind a chance to open the trap and let fall the murtherin' stones. The chieftain supped on, never hearing a sound but the howl of the wind an' the thunderin' of the sea.
“The foes were on him so quick he had hardly time to draw his sword. But right bravely he fought till they hemmed him in. It was on that stone where you stan', ma'am, that they ran him through. He died cursin' the strangers that came without let or invitation. His blood spilled on the stone. There's a stain on it yet. Never washed out; never could be washed out. You stan' on the bloody stone ..... the cursin' stone of the O'Shaughnessys. I'd move if I was you, ma'am ..... just to be on the safe side.”
Millicent's lips curled in disdain, but her hands were trembling.
“Isn't it rather early in the day for ghost stories?” she asked with false brightness.
“It could be true, just the same. Ghost stories is not all made up to scare childer.”
“What proof is there that this ever happened?”
“Only the oul' stains. Would you like me to lift the mat, Ma'am?”
“That will not be necessary, Bridget. I have no wish to see old Blood-stains.”
“You prefer them fresh, Millicent Picton.” Rose whispered fiercely.
“Will that be all, Miss Rose?” Bridget asked quietly, and, at a nod, withdrew.
“I think I'll go and have a lie down,” Millicent said, clutching her dignity. “Scenes exhaust me. Stay as long as you like, Mrs. Drynan. Caroline will entertain you, I'm sure. Now, if you'll excuse me .....”
She moved away as though to make an end of the dispute. Rose's voice, like a pistol shot, halted her in her tracks:
“Stay where you are, Millicent Picton! I want to talk to you. I'll go when we have finished talking.”
Millicent sat down again. Rose resumed the big chair at the head of the table. Rummaging in the pocket of the big apron she always wore to hide her riding breeks, she drew out a flask with elaborate silver mounting. She unstoppered it, took a swig, and set it on the table between them. When Millicent recoiled, she pushed it towards her with a nod of invitation.
“You needn't be so cagey, then. Haven't you lived long enough in a cold climate to know the good of the poteen ..... the uisce beathe ..... the water of life? Where would us old ones be without it to put heart in us and warmth running along the old bones? It's fire in the belly you need, woman, when the blood runs cold. Take a sup and let us start even.”
Millicent could have done with a swig of the poteen, but she shook her head. She was cold without her wraps and there was no fire in her belly. But she had to face Rose out. She stiffened her back against the rails of her chair; under the table she wrung her trembling hands.