To be a traveler is to be beset by a swarm of tiny annoyances, petty in themselves, but accumulating into a large sense of frustration. This feeling drove Nick Kirwan on toward home despite the fact that the sun was dropping toward the west. "Not long now, my boy," he said, patting the silken brown neck of his horse.
His voyage from France had been delayed by a storm in the Channel. Then his ship's captain had taken ill and the first mate had been a fool who had miscalculated his course to Wexford Harbor and had been too stubborn to admit it until they'd spied the shipping at Dublin. Next, Nick's horse, which had carried him through half a dozen campaigns including Waterloo, had come up lame after only a day on the cobbled streets of Dublin. Nick would sooner abandon his head than Stamps, so he waited until he was fit again. And these were only the largest of the frustrations that had harried him.
He'd set out two weeks ago to cover the hundred and sixty-odd miles between Trinity Street and his home, Greenwood. The same current of delays, small and large, had held him back. Now, however, he was but five miles from home. Every foot of stone wall dividing the landscape into crofts and yards held memories of his childhood. The scents of cow byre and sheep pen spoke to him of long days spent riding over this very country, sometimes to visit tenants with his father, sometimes in wild steeplechases with his friends.
Involved in memories, it was only the sound of a lady in distress that made him look up. He saw a carriage fallen to one side, the two horses being held by a boy, and a man and a girl standing in the road. Despite the man's burly looks, it was plain from their postures that she was giving him a piece of her mind.
"Oh, it's too bad, John Garrity! Can't you fix it?"
"No, Miss Blanche, and asking me twenty times in a minute won't make my answer change none."
"But I can't stand in the road all night. I'll catch cold. Or there might be robbers!"
"Your sister's gone to beg you some shelter for the night. Then I'll to Galway and have your father send out the landaulet."
"Rietta may relish the thought of spending the night in some smelly peasant hut, but not me! I won't! I won't!"
She turned then and saw Nick, and Nick saw her. He'd never seen a flowerlike face, for all the poets might say, but he saw one now, glowing like a white rose against the deep green hedge behind her. She was pale, but with pink charming her round cheeks. Her hair was a deep rich gold, hanging beneath a piquant bonnet to the middle of her back. Nick began to feel much better about this delay.
Walking Stamps up to the oddly assorted group, he asked, "May I be of some service?"
The beautiful girl clasped her hands with an almost childlike expression of delight. "Oh! You look just like the knight in my book! Except your horse isn't white and you don't have any armor on."
Nick smiled down into her eyes. "I am indeed a knight, though my horse be brown. Sir Nicholas Kirwan, at your service."
The coachman, a burly figure in a stuff weskit and heavy overcoat, touched his forehead with two fingers. "We had a bit of an accident, as your honor might see. The rear wheel's unpinned itself as we came around the corner."
"How awkward," Nick murmured, staring with fascination into the lagoon-blue depths of her eyes. The pink in her cheeks increased and she looked down at the ground, only to smile sideways at him like a born flirt.
"That it is. T'lad ain't strong enough to raise the wheel, while I lift the coach up."
Nick looked a little harder at the coachman. He was a square figure with powerful thighs and a broad torso while his coat sleeves bulged over muscles as well developed as Nick had ever seen. "You can lift the coach?"
"John Garrity, Sir Nicholas, formerly of Penlow's Circus. I was strongman there for over twenty years."
"Pleased to know you, Mr. Garrity," Nick said. He turned again to the dainty face of the girl. "And you are?"
She turned her pretty head to the side as if embarrassed and said cooingly, "Miss Blanche Ferris of Galway, Sir Nicholas."
He swung himself down purely for the purpose of raising her soft white hand to his lips. "An unlooked for, but much appreciated, pleasure, Miss Blanche."
She simpered, an undoubted outward push of the lips and a little wriggle that set her enchanting hair swinging. Ordinarily, he would not be pleased by such a fatuous trick but in one so lovely surely much must be forgiven.
"Oh, sir. I can no longer count this accident as anything but the kindness of Providence as it has brought you in our way."
"And here I am thanking Providence for it myself," Nick said and found her giggle surprisingly delightful.
What promised to be a delectable flirtation was cut short by her expression of very real distaste focused, not on himself naturally, but on the woman walking none too elegantly down the hill. "My sister, Rietta. My older sister."
"If she is half so charming as yourself..."
"Now what was I thinking? Of course, she couldn't be."
Lovely Blanche giggled again and said frankly, "I like you, Sir Nicholas, but she won't."
Rietta Ferris was taller than her sister, longer through the waist, and presented a much less girlish figure to a gentleman's eye. Under a close-fitting bonnet, her cheeks were flaming from her exertion. She stood in the road a moment, catching her breath.
Nick saw that she took in his sudden appearance with a flash of her eyes, but it wasn't until she could speak without gasping that she approached. By then, she'd apparently had her fill of looking at him, for her attention was entirely given to the carriage.
He could, therefore, study her. Though not as instantly striking as her sister, her face was modeled on the same lines of delicacy and harmony. She had perhaps a tad more chin than a lady really needed and a way of carrying it, high and haughty, that boded ill for anyone who crossed her will. Nick couldn't catch even a glimpse of her hair color, but her eyebrows held more than a hint of red. His theory that she was a high-spirited red-haired woman was further proved by her translucent skin, the color only now fading.
Blanche said, "Come meet Sir Nicholas, Rietta."
"Has Sir Nicholas a family name?" she asked, her voice husky compared with the lilting tones of Blanche.
"Kirwan, Miss Ferris. Sir Nicholas Kirwan."
Rietta recognized the name. Indeed, one would have been hard-pressed to find someone from Galway who didn't. The Kirwans belonged to the Fourteen Tribes, the semi-mythical founders of the town. Names of some of the Fourteen had been lost in the mists of the past, leaving no descendants, but others went on, up or down with the turning of Fate's great wheel.
This Kirwan did not look as though life had been treating him very well lately. His face was thin and far more tanned than became a gentleman. Though he spoke and moved like a young man, there were lines carving the skin around his mouth and shadows haunted his blue eyes. Yet he smiled with something of a devil's charm when he looked at Blanche. Rietta sighed as she recognized the symptoms of another man instantly slain by her sister's allure.
She turned to the driver. "Well, Mr. Garrity?"
"It's a right to-do, miss. But if the gentleman would be so good as to help me, we may yet see home this night."
"With pleasure," Sir Nicholas said, but he was gazing only at Blanche.
Rietta thanked him and stood back. He stripped off his coat and laid it with a smile onto Blanche's extended arm. Rietta took it from her before she committed the impropriety of nestling it to her bosom.
"Isn't he handsome, though?" Blanche whispered.
Rietta had already noticed Sir Nicholas's strong arms when he'd taken off his coat. Nor was it tailor's padding that made his shoulders so broad. Beneath his hat, worn at a jaunty angle over straight brows, his hair was black, but with a touch of frost that again struck her as odd in such a young man. She would put his age at no more than thirty, despite hints to the contrary.
"Is he? I hadn't noticed."
"You should have your eyes seen to! Such address, such a way of looking ..."
"Don't be mooning over some chance-met stranger, Blanche. Think of Mr. Mochrie."
"He hasn't enough money to buy a candle in church."
"Then think of Mr. Joyce. He has fortune enough."
"He'd never be able to help Garrity by lifting a wheel. He can hardly lift those books he reads all the time."
"I suppose it is useless to urge you to consider Mr. Greeves, then?"
"He may be rich but if I marry him, I'll never be a lady. I've been wondering if a title wouldn't suit me. 'Lady Kirwan ...' 'Lady Kirwan of... of...' Let's find out if his property has a name."
"He probably doesn't have a property. The one doesn't necessarily follow the other."
"Of course he does. A big, grand house with a twisting staircase that I can come down whenever we give a party." Blanche gave a blissful sigh and looked so completely angelic that she could have been mistaken for a saint in the throes of spiritual ecstasy.
Rietta rolled her eyes toward heaven for quite another reason as she saw her sister fall in love yet again. Blanche had fancied that she'd found the perfect man on countless occasions, from the accordion player at an inn they'd stayed at when she was fourteen to her latest whim of thinking it would suit her to be the darling of an elderly, wealthy man. Somehow she managed to keep three notable gentlemen on her string even though she'd given none of them either a yes or no once the inevitable proposals were made. To be fair, she had a gift that turned flirtation into an art.
Rietta tried to look disapproving as she watched Sir Nicholas's muscles strain under his shirt as he lifted the wheel into position. Though not as muscular as Garrity, his body showed that he had not spent any time recently sitting at his ease in comfortable chairs. The faded stripe on the outside of his riding breeches told the tale.
Now that England's war with France was over, many soldiers were coming home. Ireland had been officially neutral, though national sentiment inclined toward France rather than the old enemy. Yet many Irishmen had served in England's army and navy. Rietta wondered what side Sir Nicholas had chosen.
To Rietta, the soldiers' return meant there'd be even more opportunities for Blanche to lose and regain her ever-elastic heart. Would one ever come to win her permanent affections? Sometimes she wondered if Blanche didn't enjoy the chase so much that she never would consent to be caught.
In her own heart, she wished Sir Nicholas Kirwan, already showing signs of being smitten, all the luck in the world. If only she did not have to be there to see the romance unfold in the usual style.
Blanche stood by until the men had finished, then tripped nimbly forward to offer a lace-embellished handkerchief to Sir Nicholas so that he might wipe his brow.
"Thank you," he said, and tucked it into his sleeve.
Blanche simpered. "Oh, but you must give it back!"
"So I will. When I call upon you."
She pressed her lovely hands to her bosom. "Oh, will you?" she cried, showing her delight like a child.
His gaze went past her to Rietta. "May I?"
"I see no way of preventing you, sir,"
"You might refuse to give me the address."
Rietta found, to her surprise, that she was not yet entirely immune to charm. She liked that he did not plead with her, or make any overt attempt to win her approval. He only looked at her with a dancing challenge in his sharp eyes, daring her displeasure.
She knew perfectly well what he saw--a starched-up maiden lady, duenna to a winsome younger sister. It was an appearance she worked hard to project and it rarely pained her anymore. Yet if she was to be honest with herself--and she always was--she could wish for a different appearance in his eyes.
She smiled, thinly, tightly, for it was against her will that she smiled at all. "Naturally, sir, whether you call upon us must be left to the judgment of my father."
Mr. Garrity coughed meaningly. Rietta shot him a narrow-eyed glance so that by the time Sir Nicholas looked around, the coachman was the picture of innocence.
"We live on Prospect Hill," Blanche said quickly, taking advantage of the pause. "Anyone might tell you the way. My father is Augustus Ferris--the mill owner."
"Tell him I shall look forward to meeting the father of so lovely a--a pair of daughters." He handed Blanche into the coach and waited, hand held out, for Rietta.
Approaching, she put his coat into his hand. "Thank you," he said, "but may I assist you?"
He laid the coat over the open window of the coach and took her hand in his. His arm came about her to steady her. Their faces were as close as two people's could be without kissing. He had just done the same for Blanche with a smile that promised much. There was no smile for her, just a straight glance that seemed to penetrate the depths of her soul. Then she was in the coach, still feeling his hand on her waist. Even more lingering was the strange disturbance he'd caused in the tone of her mind.
Nick felt Stamps's gait begin to quicken as they came to the last hill, as though his master's eagerness drove him without any overt command. Night had begun to gather around them, filling the valleys like a wave rushing in from the sea. Nick heard the flutter and fuss as the birds settled in the hedgerows for the night and saw cottagers closing their doors against the dark.
At the top of the hill, he drew rein for a moment and Stamps blew hard through his nostrils. "Now, then, have patience. Let me look my fill."
Down there, nestled against the bosom of this land, was Greenwood. The coppice that gave the place its name had been planted by his great-grandfather to shelter unseen generations. Now the trees stood straight and tall, like soldiers guarding the future for the next generation of Kirwans, a generation Nick could only hope for as yet.
And the house, to his relief, looked just the same. Greenwood was not some palatial residence of soaring columns and wide wings sweeping out like a woman in a court gown dipping a deep curtsey. It was a four-square house of a fifty-year-bygone fashion, the yellowish stucco a bit weathered, the brick chimneys stained with smoke. Yet welcoming lights shone behind the tall windows and the faint drift of peat smoke came wafting toward him on the dying evening breeze.
Ireland was home. His countrymen's expansive speech and purring accent were enough to make him feel that he'd reached some kind of haven. But Greenwood was home-- the place he had been born. The place where his children would grow up. The place--God will it so!--where he'd die.
Not in Belgium, where so many friends had been killed on that hot day men now called Waterloo. Not in Spain nor in France, where fat Louis could be deposed again for all Sir Nicholas would stir in the business. Nor in Austria, either, where the victors would soon be dancing themselves to death. So long as it came for him here, right here at home, he'd meet death gladly, aye, and shake his bony hand to boot.
Nick clapped his heels to Stamps's sides. With a shake of his noble head and a whinny that must have pricked every equine ear in the county, the horse raced down the hill, the man on his back whooping with a delirious sense of accomplishment. He'd survived the war's horrors and come home at last.
The front door opened before a single hoof had struck a spark from the cobbled courtyard. His mother came out, arms outspread, crying and laughing together, reaching up for him before he'd even dismounted.
Then he was in her arms, feeling like a boy again, though his mother had been shorter than himself since he was thirteen. She hugged him tightly about the waist, her frail arms seeming to gather strength from her happiness. She was even tinier than he remembered, the top of her linen cap hardly reaching his heart.
"You've come back," she said, over and over. "You've come back!"
Why had it never occurred to him that she had worried about him? Her letters had always been lighthearted with an emphasis on how proud she was of his service. Though there'd been tears sparkling on her cheeks the day he'd left ten years ago, he'd callowly accepted her explanation of suffering a slight cold, for she'd smiled and laughed with him up until the moment he'd rode away.
For the first time, Nick realized his mother had probably been afraid that she'd never see him again. He'd been home on leave twice since then. Had she faced her fear anew each time he'd gone away?
"I'm all right, Mother," he whispered, knowing the words were inadequate, bending low to kiss her cheeks, soft as suede and scented with flowers. "A little tired from the trip."
"Oh, sir! Oh, Master!"
Old Barry was there, groom for thirty years, his face as wet with tears as was his mistress', sharing her elation, even as he reached for the headstall of his young master's horse.
Clinging to Nick's arm, Lady Kirwan said, "He's come back to us, Barry. Bring up a barrel from the cellar and the whole household will drink with us."
"Yes, yer ladyship. Thanks, ma'am." Even as she spoke, he was running an expert eye over the horse. "Fine fellow he is, Sir Nick! Takes his jumps flying, or I'm no Barry of Connaught. From foreign parts, is he?"
"You're right. I had him from a rascally Austrian count who should learn to count his aces."
His gaze lifted to the two young women who stood hesitating on the doorstep, surrounded by the golden yellow lamplight. He smiled at them and shy answering smiles warmed their faces. It had been so long since he'd last come home that he couldn't help being a little surprised to find them grown into women. Somehow he'd gotten it into his head that nothing would change here while he was off on his grand adventure of war. But time had not stood still for any of them, least of all himself.
As he walked into the house, his mother clinging to his arm as if afraid he'd vanish should she let go, he saw that even more had changed. The two paintings of horses that had hung on either side of the hall were gone. Instead of an ornate silver-gilt candelabra on the console table, there stood one of pottery. It was pretty, all white and blue, but it obviously belonged to a bedroom. The red carpet was worn almost to the drab drugget liner beneath.
His mother escorted him into the drawing room, where a cheery peat fire burned, sending the incense of Ireland through the room. A few candles--too few-burned close to the chairs, leaving the rest of the room lost in obscurity like the background of a time-blackened oil painting.
The tea tray, just brought in, to judge by the crumb-free plates, was scantily supplied, only enough for the girls. The glass case against the wall, once so full of small treasures and amusing objets d'art, now held only a few things, and they were the least valuable of the lot.
Most damning of all, his sisters had obviously been darning, for the sewing basket stood by the threadbare settee, and a sock, perhaps hastily thrust inside at the sound of his approach, dangled a shredded toe over the edge.
"Mother...," Nick began, then halted. Now was not the time to bring up any subject except his delight at being home.
"You must be ravenous as a lion," Lady Kirwan said. "Emma, ring the bell. Tell, Jean to bring the ham ... oh, and a bottle! If we had but known you were coming today, Nick, we would have set out a feast."
" 'Tis a feast for my eyes to see you, Mother." He kissed her hands in their thread-net mittens. "Still the prettiest girl in the county...."
"Did the Belgian ladies fall easy victims to your Irish tongue, my son? You've been practicing somewhere."
"Everywhere," he said, grinning at her. She laughed, bringing color into her cheeks, and told him that he'd not changed.
Turning, he held out his hands to his sisters. They stood together in the doorway, one with tears sliding in glistening trails down her cheeks, the other smiling at him with a grin so like his own that he was taken aback. Then they came and put their hands in his.
"Greenwood grows the fairest flowers," he said.
"Oh, Mother, you were right," the younger said. "He has the gift, sure enough. We'll have to keep our friends away from him."
She tossed a bouncing head of curls and laughed at him. Amelia still possessed a youthful plumpness of cheek and chin but her audacity had increased by leaps and bounds in his absence. Nick liked it. She'd always seemed a little in awe of him on his earlier visits.
"Minx," he said, and Amelia just laughed.
"Now tell me how much I've changed."
"That would take all day and half the night, Amelia. You've grown to be a fine-looking woman." She dipped a thank-you curtsey, then stuck out her tongue. "Or perhaps you've not changed so very much. Do you remember telling me that you'd not be a lady, no matter what your governess said. What was her name? Miss Talent... ?"
"Miss Tanager," Amelia said. "I haven't thought about her in an age. I will tell you, Nick. I'm as good as my word. I'm afraid I never have been a lady."
"Amelia's been as good as the son of the house while you've been away, Nick. 'Tis she who scolds Barry, sees to the marketing, and tallies the accounts."
"And it's glad I'll be to be shut of that," she said fervently. She added, "My head for mathematics has never been strong."
"When I did it," Emma said, "it took me days to find a shilling I'd misplaced while adding up."
Nick felt that his sisters were attempting to convey something of importance, but it had been a long day and he was too tired to work it out.
He turned to his other sister, the quieter, graver elder. After kissing her cheek, he held her hands and swung them lightly while he studied her. For a moment, he was afraid she would cast herself on his chest and howl. But instead she sniffed, wiped beneath her eyes, and gave him a tremulous, half-drowned smile. Tears had little effect on her smooth, nearly colorless skin.
"It's good to see you looking so well, Nick. When we heard of your fever ..."
" 'Twas nothing compared to the time I took the typhus," he said. For his mother's benefit, he added, "I only had a mild case, thank God."
"Thank God," Emma echoed.
He looked around. "It's good to be home at last," he said. Then he noticed anew the shabbiness of the room and how many things were missing.
"Mother," he began, "what has happened to ... ?"
Amelia kicked him lightly on the ankle. Lady Kirwan didn't see it happen but Emma looked shocked, and giggled.
"You'll have to wait to find out about your old sweethearts, Nick," Amelia said brightly. "Come and have a wash before you eat. You may not know it but your hands are all-over mud."
He glanced down. "I helped a lady in distress--two ladies, come to think of it."
"Someone I know?" his mother asked.
"I doubt it. Their father's a mill owner. Their name was Ferris, Blanche and Rietta Ferris." His three ladies looked blank. Nick added, "Blanche Ferris is possibly the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."
"We shall have to call on them," his mother said with a decisive nod. "Ferris? Yes, I believe Mrs. Halloran mentioned that family. Highly respectable."
They could not do enough for him. Amelia drew off his boots, falling over backward with a laugh, while Emma brought down a pair of slippers she'd been embroidering against his return. His mother sat with him while he ate and gazed at him as though she could not look at him enough. Nick enjoyed being spoiled almost as much as his family seemed to enjoy spoiling him. Yet after his mother had kissed him and gone to bed, he rapped gently at Amelia's bedroom door.
"Come in, Nick," she called.
He opened the door and saw both his sisters, Emma seated before the glass and Amelia standing by the window. She said, "You've come to find out the truth, haven't you?"
"I'd like to know why Mother has been selling things.
Half the silver seems to be gone, as well as pictures, furniture, and other oddments."
The girls exchanged glances. Emma rose to her feet and came to take Nick's hand. With tears welling up in her eyes, she said, "I'm afraid it's bad news. Father..." Her voice trailed off.
"Let me," Amelia said. "Father began gambling again just before he died."
"Gambling? He swore to me the last time I was home that he'd given it up."
"He swore that often enough," Amelia said, bitterness clear in her tone. "And that's not all. There was a woman."
"We don't know that," Emma said in protest. "It's all conjecture."
"True, but what else could it have been? Money just vanished like water poured into the desert sand. It was bad enough before he died, but afterwards even what little income we had dried up."
"Does Mother know about his 'woman'?"
Amelia shook her head. "Mother doesn't say anything to us. She wouldn't tell us a word, as if it weren't so obvious that she has no money. She's tried hard to keep up appearances but I'm afraid people are beginning to talk."
Emma gave a sudden, convulsive sob and turned her face away from her siblings. Amelia put her arm about her sister's waist. "It's harder for Emma than for me. She wants to marry and there's no money to give her her rights under Father's will. The money's just not there."
"Who do you want to marry?" Nick asked.
Emma sobbed again. "It doesn't matter now. He's leaving Ireland. I'll never..." She broke from Amelia's comforting arm and bolted from the room.
"Why wasn't I told?" Nick demanded. "I could have come home sooner."
"Mother wouldn't hear of it. When you couldn't get leave for Father's funeral, she said that the army had first right to your time."
"I could have gotten leave," Nick said, thudding his fist into his hand. "But things were heating up in the Peninsula and I wanted to be with my battalion. I should have come home after Napoleon went to Elba. There was no need for all this sacrifice on your parts."
"It's all right, Nick," Amelia said. "You're home now."
"Yes, I am. First thing in the morning, I'll want to see the account books. I'll talk everything over with Mother. I'm sure the situation isn't as black as you've painted it. Go tell Emma she'll get her inheritance if I have to cut down every tree at Greenwood. You'll get yours as well. I don't suppose you've a young man waiting?"
"As a matter of fact... ," Amelia grinned. "But my case is even more hopeless than hers. She wants to marry a gentleman--I'm going to marry a farmer."
"Have I anything to say in the matter? I am head of the family."
She shook her head with a gleeful grin. "We're quite used to making our own decisions," she said. "You have only to approve them."
Growing serious again, Amelia added, "You won't distress Mother, wilt you? None of this is her fault. It's all Father. Why, oh why, wouldn't he stop gambling?"
"I've known officers like that. It becomes more to them than a battle or their honor. It's like a hunger that can never be satisfied."
"Do you gamble, Nick?" Her eyes were intent as she worried a fold of her dress between her hands. He owed her his honesty.
"From time to time. But there's no lust in me for the cards or racing. It's an occasional pastime; nothing more."
Her sigh was one of relief. "We didn't know, you see. You're something of a stranger to us."
Nick put out his hand and shook hers. "I won't be a stranger anymore. I need you to put me in the way of things here. Do that, and the Kirwans will be a paying proposition in no time."
He was not so certain come the morning.