Rose took another swig from the flask, glancing at Caroline as she did, seeing her as a bird about to take flight.
“Sit down Caroline,” she commanded abruptly, and Caroline sank obediently into the chair at the bottom of the table where she could keep the brightly coloured mural in view. Rose fixed Millicent with a hawk-bright eye:
“Fergal's gone,” she said, “and God knows when he'll come again ..... if ever. Following his own mad star, he is, not caring about Dunalla ..... not that it's much to care about now ..... only a black husk full of ghosts. Caroline can't stay here, that's plain. I'm taking her back with me to Moybranach where she can live the life she's used to.”
“What would life at Moybranach fit her for?” Millicent asked sharply. “What future would she have? She's my sister's child and she has a right to as good a chance as her own sisters.”
“A chance to marry a redcoat like Lucy
did; a chance to live in some little garrison town like Fermoy,
minding her manners, presiding over the tea-tray, following the latest trim of
a hat, mincing and mouthing like a nitwit. Or a chance to
traipse about the city of
“Gwen mixes in the very best society. My sister would have approved.”
“She approved well enough of the wild O'Shaughnessys too. So did you in your time, Millicent. Eh?”
The wrangle went on. It might go on for hours, getting angrier and more insulting getting nowhere. Caroline resented the things said of her sisters, but there was no use intervening. Besides, she was tired. She laid her head on her bare arms and closed her eyes. The sunlight fell on her long auburn hair draped like a shining veil over the fumed oak table. She might have been asleep. But the angry women took no notice; they were intent on their personal duel; she was a thing apart, the prize for the winner.
“I intend to take her to Philipstown with me,” Millicent insisted.
“She's coming back to Moybranach this very day,” Rose thundered.
They broke into Caroline's dreams, irrelevant voices asserting their rights. It seemed to make no difference what she thought or wished. There was no point in staying. She slipped quietly from her chair and ran down the stairs. Out in the sunny bawn, Owen was brushing the horse, talking to him softly as he sleeked the smooth hair. He gave Caroline a knowing glance.
“I suppose they're still at it,” he said with a jerk of his head toward the upper window. “It'll be a long disputation, I'm thinkin'.”
There was a wealth of appeal in Caroline's eyes.
“Owen,” she said seriously, “they're arguing about me ..... what's to be done with me ..... where I'm to go. Moybranach or Philipstown? Somehow, I don't fancy either of them, just now. But Dunalla's too lonely. Tell me Owen, what shall I do?”
“Do just whatever your heart tells you, Miss Caroline. Your pick is as likely to turn out well as theirs, surely. Just look at them. What did they make of themselves, that they should be so wise now? Maybe this would help you.”
He drew an envelope from inside his bainin jacket.
Caroline took the envelope. It was large and fat and her name and address was in Gwendaline's decorated copperplate. It smelt faintly of some rich perfume. There was no doubt at all. She could hardly wait to tear it open. With trembling fingers, she smoothed out the creases in the flimsy paper, and began to read aloud. Owen moved away, but she recalled him. He was one of the family. What secrets had they ever had from him? The letter ran:
“My dearest Caroline
It is so long since I have heard from
you that I wonder how you are faring and if Aunt Millicent is still with you at
Dunalla. My conscience pricks when I think how lonely
you must be. I know very well what dull company Aunt can be. Now that you are
very nearly seventeen, she will be trying to make a lady of you according to
the rules of Miss Dinkleford's school. You would
learn so much faster if you were here in
I long to show my pretty young sister off in Beaux Walk or at the Rotunda. What elegant company, what brilliant assemblies! You would love the parade of fashion and wit. I can imagine the admiring glances you will call forth.
This winter there are to be more balls
than ever ..... never a dull
evening. I have had invitations to several already. The Breretons
are giving a ball for Theodosia; it would be a splendid chance for you to make
But there may be better things in
store. I am not without admirers. I am besieged with proposals, but the only
man I really like is Morrey ..... Lord Moreton. He has a fine
house quite near us in
I believe you would love the theatre.
We have a choice of entertainment, especially now that Edward Daly's theatres,
Smock Alley and Crow Street, have got an up-to-date rival at Fishamble Street. The latter is exceedingly elegant, and
quite new still. The Earl of Westmeath, its director, is a most civilized
gentleman. He made the grand tour of
By the by, I have been taking part in
some amateur theatricals myself. It is quite the thing at evenings in private
houses to have such entertainment. I was invited to join a troupe of young
ladies who danced at Lady N.....'s evening. We were
attired as dryads in shades of green and russet, with our hair flowing over our
shoulders. We learnt some very pretty dances which pleased the guests, for we
have had many offers since. I can see all sorts of opportunities for you to win
the hearts of
Do come, Caroline, if it is at all
possible. I want you to have at least one season in
Do come, Caroline. I shall look forward to a letter saying when to expect you. You can catch the Galway-Dublin mail any day. The thought makes me wildly excited. Do not disappoint me.
Your affectionate sister,
Caroline's face was aglow. Owen nodded solemnly and went on grooming the horse; any words from him would be an interference.
As Caroline read, her emotions raced from the first thrill to a certain apprehension. The envisaged grandeur of assemblies and house parties made her aware of her soiled cotton dress and lack of polish. The stress on theatricals touched some chord of delight. The very notion that she should be chosen to perform electrified her. Her life had been solitary, and yet she had been surrounded by drama; drama over which she had no control and in whose confines she had always played a solitary, detached part. Even at this moment, a drama was going on in the dim room overlooking the creek ..... a drama in which she was protagonist, yet non-participant, a war between good and evil, or between two conceptions of good, her good perhaps, but the war had nothing to do with her. The whole world was her stage for the choosing. The sun shone; the wind from the sea was cool in her hair. She had Fergal and Gwen and Lucy, her faraway wandering blood and kin; not one of them had yet found a fixed place or a determined destiny. Nor she! Nor she!
She raced across the bawn, auburn hair streaming in the sun. Hiding the letter in the bosom of her dress, she climbed the sea wall and stood, arms spread wide, on its broad summit. On the rocks far below her the sea, blue-green as her eyes, and sparkling in sunlight, churned and slithered, frothing lace on the satin-dark rocks. High in an opaline sky the harvest sun rolled his chariot wheel. She turned her head from the sea and saw Owen smile as he seldom smiled. He raised his hand, saluting; then turned back to his work. The horse's rump shone with good grooming; he was fed and watered and ready for another journey.
The aunts appeared, tiny, incongruous figures against the great mass of the keep. Seeing Caroline perched between earth and heaven, they approached, Rose with long strides, Millicent stepping carefully over the rough grass and cobbles. Like puppets, they halted, staring up with the sun in their eyes.
“Come down! Caroline,” Rose called, “we have a question to ask you.”
“Ask on,” Caroline called down, smiling as though it were all a game. “I can hear.”
“I think you'd better come down,” Millicent coaxed. “It's private, my dear.”
“There is nothing private about Dunalla. It's open to the wind.” Millicent indicated Owen's presence, but Caroline shook her head.
“He's only the amadhan, Aunt Millicent. A fool wouldn't understand, would he?”
“Stop acting, Caroline,” Rose ordered impatiently. “You're not a child any more.”
“I'm not a child! Are you sure? I was a child only a short time ago, and you two deciding how I should be reared. Now, it seems I have to decide. Is it that you can't agree?”
“Never mind. Well, if you insist on perching up there, answer one question for I have not all day to waste and a long journey before me. Are you staying here or are you coming back to Moybranach with ME?”
Millicent's voice was an attenuated echo:
“You're coming to Philipstown with me, aren't you? You don't want to live your life apart from your sisters, do you?”
So they were leaving it to her. Caroline kept them waiting. Poised on the wall, towering above their taut figures, she stood tall and free and splendid as a young queen. Rose champed at the bit; Millicent wrung her hands and tried not to shiver. How unreal they looked, like puppets dangling on the strings of their own nerve-lines. When she chose to speak, her voice was clear and firm, but gentle:
“I will not go with either of you. I must make my own life. For the moment it will be here, at Dunalla. This is my home.”
“You're crazy, child!”
Which aunt spoke she was not sure; it seemed irrelevant. Her reply was for both:
“I am no more crazy than most people.”
“Fergal would wish .....”
“You do not know what he would wish, Aunt Rose.”
“Gwen and Lucy would .....”
“You cannot speak for them, Aunt
Millicent. I think I understand them better than you do. We are sisters. By the
way, I have just received a letter from Gwen. She wants me to come to her in
“Hmph!” Rose snorted,” so that's why you're
so high and mighty. Well if it's the bright lights and the fast life of
Millicent smiled a smug smile of complicity. Her voice was full of the music of triumph, though carefully modulated:
“How splendid for you, Caroline. We can catch the mail together. I
might go all the way to
Caroline gave no indication of hearing; she was watching the harnessing, waiting for Aunt Rose to settle herself in the gig. It was a relief to see her going, yet she could not regard the spare frame and the proud, mad, defeated head without a tug of regret, a sense of desolation. It would have been so easy to call out, run after her aunt, let herself be driven home to the wide welcome of Moybranach. Only the crisp touch of Gwen's letter against her heart and the fine band of gold about her thigh were stronger than the tug to home and mothering. Millicent, seeing herself ignored, walked huffily away. She did not look as Rose drove out of the bawn.
A shake of her whip was the last Caroline saw of her. She waved back. Poor old, crazy, generous, overwhelming Aunt Rose! Moybranach so heartsome and free after this stronghold! But Gwen's letter rustled in her bosom, whispering the delights of the city. She heard music for dancing and a man's voice: “I shall be prompt to attend fetes, balls, entertainments, all assemblies where I may catch a glimpse of you.”
As soon as both aunts were out of sight and earshot, she leaped from the wall and ran across the bawn. Through the arched gateway and clear of the walls, she found a familiar path that descended steeply to the rocky shore. Half way down she found her own secret refuge, a sheltered nook where she had often lain hidden as a child. There was no view from this spot except of the waves surging between the dark rocks, and the sky above in the colour of the day.
High in the air seagulls swooped and soared above their nests on a flat ledge of rock. Sometimes a pair of swans, or perhaps a whole company rocked gently on the waters of the narrow estuary, resting from the rough winds of the outer bay. Today a majestic pair sailed, dreaming on a gentle tide. They had been there since the beginning of time it seemed ..... Lir's children under Aoife's spell ..... Aoife, their aunt, jealous and putting the curse on them. Dunalla ..... the fort of the swan. How many daughters had fallen under the spell of envious frustrated aunts. The thoughts sifted through her brain as she lay, warm in the sun and sheltered in the cleft of rock, rocked by the lulling waves ..... falling asleep.
How long she slept she had no notion. When she woke a chill air was fanning off the sea and the sun was well to westward. Maureen must have called; she was perched on a boulder a few feet from where Caroline lay.
“You looked so peaceful, like a sleeping princess, that I hated to rouse you, but there's a big howdy-ye-do up there an' you not seen since forenoon. Your aunt thinks you went after Miss Rose or that maybe you drowned yourself. She leans more to the drownin' story; she has a scared look in her eyes that looks like guilt. 'It's my fault' she keeps saying! I told her not to get herself in such a sweat; you were like as not run away with a wanderin' piper an' you'd be back the minute you got tired of his tune. I said that just to keep her goin'; it was bad of me. I let on I had no notion where to look for you, till she got in such a state I thought she'd have a fit. Anyway I was thinkin' you'd be hungry. Come on up an' have a bite to eat.”
“Rabbit broth again! Still, I'd be glad of anything.”
“You'll be real glad of what's in front of you. Owen caught the finest fat trout you ever did see an' my granny has it roastin' on the grid this very minute.”
The two girls climbed the steep path with the speed and agility of young goats. The sizzle of trout greeted them, and the succulent smell of melting butter. The fire blazed a welcome and the table was set. Millicent waited, warming her hands, not daring to take the chieftain's chair. She looked wan and distressed. Caroline felt genuinely sorry for her; she settled the seating matter at once.
“We'll leave the chieftain's chair for himself,” she said. “He has had a restless night and day of it.”
Millicent obeyed, taking the chair opposite Caroline. The grotesque carved mask on the big chairback grinned and winked in the guttering rushlight. Fire-light glanced off Rose's silver mounted flask. She had forgotten it in the fuss. Millicent found it a good excuse to say something:
“Maureen,” she said, asserting some authority that she felt had slipped from her, “will you kindly remove that. Maybe your grandmother could make some use of the contents.”
“She could, ma'am. There's nothin' like the uisce beatha for the pains.”
But first there was the trout to serve ..... noble on a silver salver, wreathed with fresh watercress. Maureen set the salver before Millicent and the gesture pleased her; she smiled with sheer pleasure.
“I say, Maureen,” she remarked warmly, “this looks really delicious.”
“It is that. While you're serving the trout I'll fetch the roasted spuds an' the butter. There's a bottle of wine, if you like. You might as well make a feast of it.”
“We might as well, Maureen,” Caroline replied. “It might be a last supper.” She hardly knew what she meant, but Millicent took heart.
“Yes, Maureen,” she said genially. “I think Caroline has made up her mind. We'll be leaving you very soon. Ah, you look surprised! No wonder; we decided rather suddenly.”
“I decided,” Caroline corrected. “I'm
going to Gwen in
“Soon, Miss Caroline?” Maureen asked anxiously.
“Probably. I'll let you know, Maureen.”
Millicent caught the look that passed between the two girls. Things were going her way up to a point; but there was some understanding between these two that she could not fathom. It annoyed her to be left guessing. As soon as Maureen had brought the potatoes and butter and set the uncorked wine and glasses, she dismissed her peremptorily and turned a searching gaze on Caroline.
“Aren't you just a little too familiar with the servants, Caroline? You have had little opportunity to learn how a young lady should behave. Give them an inch and they take a span ..... forget their proper place.”
“There are no proper places at Dunalla. When the so-called servants share the same blood and the same hall door as the family, there is no thought of proper places. Their place is ours.”
“Your father treated them like slaves.”
“That was how they expected the chieftain to treat them.”
“And the chieftain's daughter?”
“Not the chieftain's daughter. She is not 'my lady'.”
“You have a lot to learn, child. There is so much I could teach you, if you'd .....”
“Gwen will teach me.”
“She's very young ..... twenty-two isn't she?”
“Yes, but experienced in the ways of the world. Read this.”
She drew Gwendaline's letter from the bosom of her dress. As Millicent read, deciphering its import in the uncertain light, Caroline addressed herself to the excellent food. The red wine glowed luxuriously in crystal goblets. She drank to her own future whatever it might be ..... and to Fergal's safe return. She felt mistress of her destiny, secure in this strong fortress, warmed by wine and fire, appeased with delicious food. Her eyes met Millicent's frown with complete calm.
Millicent detected her confidence; she also saw the girl's dishevelled state, her touching childishness.
“We must go into this more carefully when we have dined. This letter confirms my belief that you are not quite ready to face the fashionable world. It has many pitfalls and there are some things in this letter that suggest that Gwendaline is not the best person to warn you. There are subtleties under the surface. A young girl could be misled by appearances.”
“I think Gwen knows what she is about.”
“Perhaps. It is time she was wed. This affair with Lord Moreton has been going on too long. It would be a brilliant match for Gwen, but is that his intention? A carriage and pair, but no word of betrothal. It raises some doubt.”
“You have no need to doubt. Gwen knows what she is doing, I am sure of that.”
“I think you are an imprudent young girl.”
“Impudent, you mean, Aunt Millicent. Well, never mind just now. Enjoy your supper. Let me pour you some wine.”
Millicent put her worries aside for the moment. She was hungry and the meal looked delicious. She sipped her wine; its fine bouquet beguiled nose and palate. They ate in a happier atmosphere than they had ever experienced since Millicent's coming. Caroline free in her dreams, Millicent growing confident in her plans. They were at peace for some time, lingering over their meal, sipping the wine slowly, postponing whatever conflict might be brewing.
When at last they finished and Millicent prepared to have the heart-to-heart talk, Caroline startled her by saying quietly:
“Aunt Millicent, you don't mind if I retire, do you? I feel drowsy. The wine was too good.”
“But,” Millicent began, “we must talk .....”
“Not now, dear aunt, not now. Another time, perhaps.”
She rose from the table and, leaned down to kiss Millicent on the brow. Lightly she touched the worry lines, but Millicent was not comforted; her hands reached out to hold the girl, but swift as a shadow Caroline withdrew and walked away.
“Good night Aunt Millicent,” she called from the doorway and Millicent could only gasp “Good night”. Caroline turned deliberately from her stricken appeal. The door closed firmly behind her leaving Millicent alone with the dying fire, the winking masks and the remains of a superb meal. She filled her glass to the brim and swallowed the wine in one long draught.