At first Torrey didn't notice the child. It had been late afternoon when she'd arrived at the Dublin Airport after a flight from her interpreting job in Warsaw. Now, at six o'clock, on the Dublin-to-Cork bus, she gazed out through a rain-spattered window at the purple mountains of Wicklow. High on the hills, damp sheep huddled. Along the roadside, through breaks in the wet hedges, she saw flashes of still-green meadows. Wicklow's rainy autumn weather.
She bit into her last chocolate bar and gave a shiver of delight. Another twenty minutes and she'd be home in the snug little groundsman's cottage ten minutes up the road from Ballynagh. First thing, though, she'd pick up some milk and a tin of ham paste and a loaf of bread in the village. Coyle's Market would still be open, they closed at seven. Then, at the cottage, she'd shuck off her city shoes and right away pad in stocking feet over to the kitchen fireplace and light a peat fire. Already she could feel the warmth. Then she'd slip off her business jacket and unpack her--
"Ballynagh," the bus driver said, and the bus hissed to a stop. The driver looked over at the front seat across the aisle. "This is where you get off, little miss. You're to wait down the street, in front of where it says 'O'Curry's Meats.'"
Only then did Torrey see the child, who now stood up, Agirl, possibly eight years old. She said "Thank you" to the driver in a voice low as a whisper, and went sideways down the steps, dragging a tan canvas tote bag. She had short straight brown hair and wore fuzzy dark-red pants and a navy jacket that looked outgrown, so that the sleeves, now too short, showed her thin, bony wrists. Slung over one wrist was a blue plastic pocketbook.
Ten minutes later, Torrey came out of Coyle's with a sack of groceries, all she could carry, what with her suitcase that, thank God, at least had wheels. It would be a twenty-minute walk up the road and through the hedge to the cottage. There was still a drizzle of rain, and black clouds had darkened the sky, turning dusk to darkness. Too bad she had only the tiny flashlight on her key ring.
Across the street, she saw the little girl still standing in front of O'Curry's Meats. She was clutching the blue plastic pocketbook in front of her with both hands. The street was empty, most shops already closed. From O'Malley's Pub, a row of lights reflected on the wet pavement. Two men came out of the pub, one staggering, the other holding him up, saying, "Now, Pa, never mind, time to go home." Another man, muttering, shoulders hunched, came from the pub, crossed the street, and almost ran into the child. He swore and continued on his way, then turned, looked back, hesitated, then spotted Torrey and went on.
Bastard, Torrey said under her breath. She crossed to O'Curry's and smiled down at the child, who tilted up an anxious little face. "Honey," Torrey began, only to be cut off with--
"My auntie! Where's my auntie?" The freckled little face was pale, the chin quivered, tears started. Blue eyes overflowed.
"Ah," Torrey said, "what's your auntie's name?"
"Auntie Megan. Megan O'Faolain."
As Torrey said later, ruefully, to Jasper, "I thought then,What a relief! Megan O'Faolain! No one's more dependable than Megan O'Faolain. Something must've delayed her a bit. My God! How could anyone have guessed!" And she had shuddered.
But now, only relieved, looking down at the tear-washed little face of the child, she said, "Your Auntie Megan's a bit late. Suppose we go to meet her. Would you like that?"
"Oh, yes!" Hands going lax with relief on the plastic pocketbook. "Can we do that?"
"Absolutely!" So ... what else could she do except leave her sack of groceries and her wheeled suitcase with Sean O'Malley behind the bar at O'Malley's Pub, pick up the child's tan tote bag, and start up Northerly Road with the child to meet the late-arriving Megan O'Faolain? ... Megan, who was what Torrey thought of as "comely," a dark-haired, blue-eyed, deep-bosomed unmarried woman in her forties. Whenever Torrey was away on an interpreting job, Megan O'Faolain "looked in" at the cottage to make sure that no mice were carousing through the cupboards and no raccoons nesting in Torrey's bed. To Torrey, Megan O'Faolain was a blessing who furnished peace of mind, for which Torrey paid her only a few pounds that she was aware Megan certainly didn't need. Torrey could tell that Megan came to the cottage because she was intrigued by the idea of this young American interpreter who spoke a dozen languages and who was renting the groundsman's cottage as a jumping-off place for job assignments in Europe. It had been two years, and still Torrey had no thought of returning home. She'd fallen in love with Ballynagh. Besides, now there was Jasper, wasn't there?
Northerly Road. The drizzle had stopped. A thin, pale moon shone down, turning the pebbles on the road an almost luminous white. But there was no Megan O'Faolain hurrying toward them with a flurry of apologies and a thank-you for rescuing her little niece, whose name, it turned out, was SharonO'Faolain. "My mam's having a new baby," Sharon said, skipping along, tears dried. "So I'm to stay with my Auntie Megan until it gets born and settles down. My mam says my Auntie Megan lives in a big house with a name: Gwathney Hall. My mam says it has gardens and a maze and rooms aplenty. I'm to have a whole room to myself."
"Are you, now?" But Torrey looked off ... that rustle in the bushes on the left, the moonlight slanting off ... something that gleamed, like the length of a rifle or shotgun, though a wet reed could've gleamed the same way. "A whole room?" Torrey said, distracted. That rustle, again. A small animal, of course. Then, nothing, no sound. In the moonlight they rounded a bend.
"Oh, look!" Sharon breathed. For there, on a hill in the moonlight, lay Gwathney Hall. The moon silvered the irregular angles of the slate roofs from which rose four chimneys, wide as a man's armspread. Gwathney Hall was a Victorian country house of a type that landowners and rich merchants built in the late eighteen hundreds. It had deep and shadowy eaves and long bay windows. Lights gleamed from windows, upstairs and down.
Gwathney Hall. The home of John Gwathney, the world-famous historian. Tibet, China, the Silk Road. The Digs at Knossos. And, closer to home, The Aran Islands Compendium. "A historical detective" is the way an admiring reviewer in The National Review had described John Gwathney. Torrey had seen Gwathney only once. He'd been shopping for greens in Coyle's. He'd given her a keen-eyed look and a nod. He was in his late sixties, tall, shaggy-haired, and wearing well-worn, shapeless tweeds. Villagers knew that whenever he dropped into O'Malley's Pub, it was for a single glass of whiskey, for which, when he departed, he always left a good handful of pounds on the bar, with a hospitable wave of his hand for a round or two for the other customers. He had long been a widower, and in the village had, these last few years, become subject to romanticspeculation and sly whispers. Torrey herself chose to ignore the gossip as none of her business. Megan O'Faolain was her friend.
"We're here," she said now to Sharon, who stood, rooted, round-eyed and openmouthed, staring at Gwathney Hall, and who now breathed out in awe, "My auntie lives there?"
"Yes," Torrey said. As far as she knew, Megan O'Faolain had been housekeeper at Gwathney Hall for the last four or five years. John Gwathney must have agreed to let this child be a visitor.
But what had delayed Megan? Torrey sighed. She felt a pang of hunger, a definite yearning for ham paste on country bread and a cup of hot tea. And to take off these damned city shoes!
It was then she saw a gleam of light from between the frosted-glass double doors of Gwathney Hall, one door of which, despite the cold and rainy weather, was open a crack.