The flat-cart rattled and bumped along the dirt road, the donkey moving at a sedate walk, in as little hurry as myself, apparently, to come to Innismore. I sat huddled on the boards, hands clasped and eyes roving the marshlands and bogs on either side of me, wondering what had possessed me to leave Dublin and come west into Connemara, this wild and rocky country that seemed as inhospitable as an Englishman’s musket.
Seamus McCarty, he of the black scowl and the curious gray eyes, who drove the flat-cart and glanced at me from time to time with a quirking of his bushy eyebrows, was almost as ungracious. We had come from Ballinrobe, where the train had made its stop, between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, with the Partry Mountains to the north and west, in a silence so thick you could have cut it with a bread knife.
I stirred against that silence, feeling rebellion inside me. “Faith now,” I said at last. “Is it the cat who’s got your tongue, or are you afraid of the fairy folk?”
He chuckled thickly, bobbing his head. “Aye, that I am. Or if not of the shee people, then of the Black Druid.”
I turned my head and stared at him. “The Black Druid?”
“Haunts Innismore, it’s said.”
I snorted. “Peasant superstitions.”
That stung him. He turned and gave me the full effect of those gray eyes and bushy brows. “Full of airs you are, like all the city folk.”
I laughed, aware that it was the first true laugh I’d enjoyed since Father died some months before, in our flat on Cork Street. We had been happy enough, Father and I, except for the drink which he enjoyed as much as most Irishmen, if not a little better. It was not the drink that had killed him, unless you count the chill he caught because he had enjoyed an overabundance of the Irish whiskey and had lost his way in a thick fog. I had given up my post as teacher to nurse him, fruitlessly as it turned out, so that when he finally passed away I was without a job or any hope of one until I saw the notice in the newspaper.
Sir Conaire Kilpatrick was in need of a tutor for his little girl, that advertisement told me, so down I sat and wrote a short note setting forth my credentials, and sent it off immediately. Inside the week, I had my answer, a few words to say I was hired, that I was to come by train and flat-cart to a country estate called Innismore, and there was an enclosure of twenty pounds to pay my fare and any other incidentals I might be required to expend to get there.
I wept a little in gratitude, and went to St. Michan’s Church to say a few prayers, after which I walked home and packed all I owned in two suitcases and a carryall. The furniture I left in the flat, the landlord saying that he would send me a bank check for it—he would rent the flat as furnished—and I took with me only a hand-painted portrait of Mother and Father as they were years back, when I had been a little girl.
Seamus McCarty glowered at me, so I put a hand on his arm, making my voice soft and pleasant. The Irish are a proud people—God alone knows why!—and so I told him I was sorry to have laughed, but very grateful to him since I hadn’t been able to laugh in such a long time.
He sniffed and glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “Had trouble, have you?”
I told him about Father dying, and of my mother, who had died some years before. “Father had no one to care for him, I couldn’t teach school and nurse him, so I had to give up my job.”
“And now you’ve come to Innismore.”
“You make it sound like a doom of some kind.”
“And that it is, what with the Black Druid and Ossian’s harp in its hall, and the prophecy. Last one left in a fit of the shrieking megrims, she did, cried out her eyes all the way to Ballinrobe and even when she was setting foot on the train itself. An unlucky lot are the Kilpatricks.”
“I thought—I assumed, rather—that they were a well-to-do family.”
“Och, they’re that, I suppose, in a manner of speaking. But I don’t envy them their lands and horses and the fine house they call Innismore, no more do I.”
“What frightened the other teacher?”
He shrugged. “Heard the banshee, she did, or so she claimed. There was more to it than that, I believe.”
“The banshee! You don’t mean to tell me she actually heard a banshee wail. Do you believe in banshees?”
“Never heard one myself, thanks be to God, but she did.”
“But banshees are just Irish folklore.”
“City folk are unbelieving folk.”
I smiled at him. “Then convince me, Seamus McCarty.”
He shook his head under its woolen cap stubbornly. “Let Sir Conaire tell you what you want to know. It isn’t my job.”
“Surely, you can tell me something.”
He spat over the side of the car and sniffed. The man wanted more urging, I felt sure, needed to feel important.
“I’d be very grateful,” I murmured softly. “After all, I am an orphan, and in what seems to be a very strange land, this far out of the city. Couldn’t you at least warn me about what it is I must face?”
“The Black Druid walks the halls of Innismore, he rides the hills on a coal-black stallion and abducts pretty girls.”
The gray eyes slid toward me, to observe my reaction.
“I’m safe enough, then. I’m no pretty girl,” I smiled.
“Och now, it’s fishing for compliments you are.”
“No, really,” I protested, head tilted to one side. “Do you really think I’m pretty?”
He spat again, nodding. “You’ll do well enough, until the next one comes along.”
I sat there, pleased with his compliment. I have never considered myself a great beauty, though my milky white skin, together with my black hair and green eyes, and overlong eyelashes, are not unattractive. Of course, men had paid attention to me, so that I knew I was a female, at least, but lovely Deirdre of the Sorrows would have had no competition from me, nor even Queen Maeve herself.
Still, I hugged myself and found new beauty in the boglands past which we trundled, bumping at every rut in the road, in the green meadows to the north and the neat stone fences bisecting them. The cotton grass was white with fresh blooms, and the golden gorse ranged here and there like bits of fairy gold glimpsed dimly before the dawn.
“What’s he like? Sir Conaire Kilpatrick, I mean?”
“A big man, and quiet. Fights with his neighbors, I hear tell. And with the old witch who lives in his house.”
“Old witch?” I gasped.
“Keeps her for a pet, I understand.”
There was laughter in his throat, by which I understood he was enjoying his little joke and teasing me at the same time. I pretended to scowl at him.
“Seamus McCarty, it’s the big liar you are.”
“A witch she is, though she goes by the name of O’Rahilly, and was his dead wife’s mother. Runs Innismore, she does. And those she doesn’t like must go.”
I swallowed hard. A man I could cope with, I felt, but a woman was another matter, especially one who had been Sir Conaire’s mother by law, and who probably considered herself some sort of Irish royalty. I shivered and pulled my Directoire coat closer about me against my sudden chill.
“Banshees and Black Druids don’t bother me, but I think Mrs. O’Rahilly will,” I said suddenly.
He nodded, flicking his reins at the donkey. “Aye, she’s a bitter pill to swallow, or so I’ve been told. A tart tongue in her head and eyes like gimlets that bore deep into you. It’s her as done for the other one.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Claimed she stole a jewel. Found it in her bureau. Girl denied it, of course, but the proof was there.”
“It—it could have been put there by—by this Mrs. O’Rahilly. That is, if she wanted the girl to go.”
“It could have, yes. Girl insisted it was so, all the way to Ballinrobe.”
“Then I must be on my guard.”
“It’ll do you no good.”
I sighed, half in exasperation at his gloom, half in dread of what lay before me at Innismore. The wind had grown colder, the sunlight was hidden behind clouds. In the dimness the flowers lost something of their loveliness, and the road, as though to warn me, grew even bumpier.
“You’ll shake me to pieces,” I protested after a few moments of this jouncing.
“Aye. Most folks ride horses in these parts. Can you ride?”
He looked at me more fully. “City riding?”
“Dublin’s not so far from the country, you know. You can see the mountains from its streets. I had a good friend who owned a farm, a big farm, just outside the city. I used to spend my vacations there, and long weekends, when I could. I’ve ridden a horse since I was seven.”
He grunted and turned back to the road. “That one couldn’t ride,” he volunteered.
“The other teacher? But whatever did she do with herself in country like this?”
“Played up to Sir Conaire, no doubt.”
I stared at him. “Is that guesswork, you with your evil mind, Seamus McCarty, or do you truly know something you won’t tell?”
He shrugged and the flat-cart trundled on.
With the low clouds and the lack of sunlight, I could sense the brooding sadness that seems at times to cover the fields of Ireland. There were rocks and big boulders half hidden in the loam and covered over with gray lichen, and the bog-waters were black. There were few birds about; I saw a swallow skimming low across the fields, but other than that, there was no movement of any kind. The land lay desolate under the sullen sky, and seemed, to my eyes at least, to be most unwelcoming to a young woman from Dublin come here to make her fortune.
It was then that I heard the cry.
My hand stabbed out and caught Seamus McCarty by his forearm, shaking it. “Listen! Did you hear that? Someone’s in trouble.”
“Some fool fell into the bog. The Devil’s Bog, they call that one,” he said, and his head nodded at the brackish water to our right, where reeds and wild thyme grew, and lovely green mosses. “It’s said the devil himself comes up from the hot place to snatch at his victims every now and so often. Looks like he’s got himself another one.”
I stared at him in horror as the donkey plodded on. “Aren’t you going to stop?”
“Whatever for? I’m not one to argue with Old Scratch.”
“Bad cess to you, then! For I am.”
I leaped from the cart, moving as it was, stumbled and regained my balance.
The cry had come from beyond a low stone fence bordering the meadows. I leaped a ditch and, clambering over the wall, began to run. I could see nothing but the black bog waters, could discover no sign of any human being, was aware only of a cool wind and lowering skies, the sheer in-hospitality of these fields and what they hid.
“Come back, you silly fool,” I heard McCarty yell.
I would not stop. My ears had not deceived me: I knew someone was in bad trouble somewhere out there and I wouldn’t rest content until I had done what I could. Feet pounded behind me, a hand caught my arm and swung me about.
Seamus McCarty scowled down at me in mingled anger and relief.
“Ach musha! Don’t you know better than to venture those pretty feet of yours in a place like that?”
“I can’t let him die!” I shuddered and turned from him to scan the black waters. “What an awful death it must be, to be trapped in there.”
“And it seems you want to join him. It’s a fool myself I am to bother my head about you or him, either, but I said I’d take you to Innismore, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
I heard the cry again and now we both saw the arm waving, and a head, far off across the bog. Seamus McCarty whispered curses under his breath.
“What’s the fool doing, to be almost in the middle of the bog? It won’t be easy to get him out.”
“Then you’ll help me?”
He growled in his throat, making a great to-do about what a poor man was forced to do upon occasion. He turned and began to walk back toward the flat-cart
“Where are you going?” I called.
“To get the ropes that hold down your luggage,” he told me. “And mind you stay where you are until I get back.”
I took a few steps forward to defy him, but wetness oozed about my thin city shoes and so I halted, cupping my hands to my mouth and calling out to that distant figure struggling so vainly in the grip of the soft, clinging bog. I thought he heard me, for his head turned and his arm waved, and he did not struggle as much as he had been.
Then Seamus McCarty was back, bidding me stay close to his coattails, for he knew the bog, and where to plant his feet to find firm ground rather than these black waters that would suck him down. We went slowly, for it had been a long time since he had been here, as he informed me, and he wasn’t as sure of the way as once he had been. A rope was looped about his shoulder for the throwing; he was one of those tall, lean Irishmen who have so much strength that I felt very confident trailing after him.
We came at last to a spit of land covered over with green grass, and saw that the floundering man was less than twenty feet away. I was surprised, when we came closer, to discover that the man was very well clad, in a velvet riding coat, spattered with mud and water, of course, but showing traces of good tailoring. His black hair was plastered to his head, and his rugged face seemed dark with tan.
“Och, now,” gasped Seamus McCarty, “it’s the lord himself.”
“Hurry, hurry,” I said, shaking him by an elbow.
“Sure now, he won’t drown, not yet at least.”
He was very calm as he undid the rope and tossed it, knotted end first, out to the man in the bog. That one caught it dexterously with one hand, grasped the knot, and called to Seamus to pull, which he did.
“Use both hands,” I called.
He did not answer me, saving his breath for the task of struggling from the water and the mud that held him, but soon enough I saw that his other hand was out of sight, for he was dragging something along with him.
“Let it go,” I cried, rather vexed that he should be using so much of Seamus McCarty’s strength to free himself and so little of his own, but he only shook his head.
When he came striding up out of the bog, I saw that he held a saddle in his left hand. Covered with mud and dripping water, it seemed almost a part of him, until he flung it onto dry land and came to stand beside us.
He was a tall man, broad across the shoulder and lean at the waist; he had a hard look to his face but a twinkle in his eyes. His lips were firm, curved to a grim smile at the moment, and his hair seemed thick as a lion’s mane, and glossy black. I recalled vaguely that Seamus McCarty had named him “the lord,” and so I assumed he must be Sir Conaire Kilpatrick.
His laughing blue eyes stared hard at me, glanced at Seamus McCarty, who was rolling up his rope, then looked back at me.
“You’ll be Moira McGrehan?”
“That’s herself, and a good thing for you, Sir Conaire,” muttered Seamus McCarty.
His eyes locked on mine. “Oh? And why do you say that, Seamus?”
“She’s the one who rescued you, by hearing your call and jumping out of my cart like a frightened hare leaping from the fox. Myself, I mightn’t have stopped, hadn’t it been for her.”
Sir Conaire gave me a little bow. “My thanks to you, then. Already I find myself in your debt. Faith, it’s a rude sort of introduction between us, isn’t it now?”
I glanced down at the muddy saddle. “You might have saved yourself without help from us if it hadn’t been for that saddle of yours. Is it so valuable?”
He bent and lifted the thing, holding it up so the girth straps dangled. I caught my breath and Seamus McCarty grunted. One of those straps had been sliced neatly, so that its other part was still held by the buckle.
“A man’s a fool to trust himself to a strap in such bad condition,” muttered Seamus.
“I’m the more fool to trust the man who put it on my hunter.”
“Ah. You’ll be meaning Eddie Regan.”
“I do indeed. It’s words I’ll have with him when I get back to the house.”
Seamus McCarty gave me a guarded look. “May-hap the Black Druid did it when you weren’t looking.”
Sir Conaire drew a deep breath. “What tales have you been pouring into her ears, McCarty? The Black Druid, indeed.”
“Is there a Black Druid what haunts your home?” I asked.
“Would it make a difference to you?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts and hob-gobs”
Seamus said, “She’s city folks, she is.”
“And sensible, with her two feet planted firm upon the ground. I like that in her. I think she’ll do for Kathleen very well.”
“Kathleen? She is your daughter?” I wondered.
“And a poor, sickly child she is,” he murmured.
I hesitated then blurted out, “Didn’t Lady Kilpatrick have a nurse to look after her?”
There was a faint silence. Seamus McCarty stared up at the sky, pursing his lips soundlessly, while Sir Conaire scowled, then smiled grimly.
“She has been ill only since my wife died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“No need to be. You meant nothing by it.”
Seamus McCarty said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting a ride to Innismore in the flat-cart?”
“If you don’t mind, Seamus.”
The man shrugged his shoulders and set off across the bogland, as though to wash his hands of both of us. I looked at Sir Conaire, he winked at me, then bent to retrieve his saddle. I turned and walked ahead of him, following closely in Seamus McCarty’s footsteps.
When we were near the road, I turned to look back at my employer, saying, “What about your horse?”
“Ran back to the stables, the spalpeen. He’s a young one, and needs training. I was trying to give it to him.”
I halted and looked at him with more interest than I had shown as yet. “Do you raise horses?”
“I do. The land’s not fit for much else.”
“I love to ride,” I said wistfully, remembering those days of my youth when I had visited Maureen Schaughnessy and her father’s farm.
“Then ride you shall,” he promised, catching my elbow with a hand he wiped clean on his shirt, to help me over the ditch and onto the road.
Sir Conaire refused to sit up front with Seamus McCarty and myself, saying that he was too wet and muddy to soil our clothes, but would ride the tail with his legs dangling over, almost touching the road itself. Seamus McCarty busied himself tying down my luggage, then swung up to grasp the reins and flick them across the little donkey’s back.
The boglands gave way to forested slopes, rare in these parts, past which we moved at little more than a walk. I was filled with conflicting emotions, turning from time to time to view the broad back and wide shoulders of this Irish lord who rode as cheerfully as any schoolboy on the back of the flat-cart, glancing about him at the bare rocky ground or studying the trees where they grew thickly to our right.
I wondered what sort of man he was, what working for him would be like. He seemed very friendly, but I had detected a haunting sadness in his eyes, in his face, that vaguely disturbed me. He had not denied the Black Druid, had merely passed him off with a question. I knew the dark superstitions of the Irish country people, of their belief in sidh fairies and in the Tir-na-nog, that Celtic other-world where the opalescent beings whom the Irish call “the gentry” are said to dwell. I have read much of their beliefs, being Irish myself, but I had always put down these tales as little more than bogies with which to frighten children into obedience.
And Kathleen, his daughter? He had called her sickly. Was I to play the part of nurse as well as teacher? I knew a little of nursing, since I had cared for sick children in the past, but I was not qualified as a woman trained to this work might be.
What of the old witch, this Mrs. O’Rahilly who ran his household? Would I have trouble with her, as my predecessor had, being accused of theft that might have been no more than a wicked trick to be rid of her?
I was anxious to do well at this job. I had spent weeks on end searching for work after my father died and left me with nothing more than his name to see me through the dark days of his loss. He had been a good man, my father, though often footless with drink, for which I pitied him. He missed my mother very much—they had been so close. He could never pass Paddy’s place without stepping in for a mug of dark stout or a jigger filled with fiery Irish whiskey, to fill his lonely hours. He never stopped at one drink, nor at five or ten, for that matter.
I sighed. I had to stay here, to do my job well. I had no hankering to go back to Dublin, where a jobless girl was like to starve to death. I bowed my head and whispered a little prayer as the forests gave way to grassy slopes and the sun broke through the clouds.
And so I came to Innismore.