“Captain, that girl is still sitting there!”
Michael Carradyne rose stiffly to his feet, and looked at his head stable-hand, Artie, who had come into the dining-room to tell him this news.
“All night?” Catriona Carradyne looked worried, as did her stepmother, Selina, and Elizabeth Comyn, the housekeeper. “She'll be frozen, so she will.”
“I think I'd better go and see if she's all right. Trina, come with me, if you will, so you can run back and ring the doctor if we think it's necessary.”
Catriona and her father walked down the long drive, and saw, as Artie had said, the pretty girl who had come to the house yesterday sitting on her suitcase on the grass verge just outside the gates. Michael went forward to speak to her, but realised, as soon as he was within range, that she was beyond speech.
“Get the doctor, fast! And bring some rugs, the child's freezing!”
Catriona ran back to the house, where Selina offered to ring the doctor, so she grabbed an armful of blankets and raced back down the drive again. “I should maybe have brought a horse blanket, so we could lie her down,” she said.
“No, you're all right, I think it's best we don't move her. I don't think she's hurt, but she's cold and she's obviously very ill. Tell me about it, you say she came to the house yesterday?”
“Yes, she just arrived and announced that she wanted a job. I told her that we'd no vacancies, and that she should apply more conventionally, sending a CV detailing her experience and references and so on. She seemed all right then; she smiled and thanked me, and walked away, with that little case. It wasn't until later that I saw her sitting there, and wondered if she was waiting for a lift, or something.”
“She was just sitting there?”
“Yes, sure. She didn't have a book or anything.”
The doctor came, and with him an ambulance, and the girl was loaded on to a stretcher. Catriona went back to fetch her car.
“And where do you think you're going? There's work to be done!” growled her father.
“I know that, but I'm not leaving that child alone until we know more about her. She is so young, her people must be worrying about her. Ann will be over in a bit – let her ride out on Charlie, you know she longs to, and she's more than able.”
“Ah, you reckon she's ready to move on from ponies?”
“She's the age I was when you bought Charlie for me! She's growing up fast now, Dad, and riding two full holes longer than last year.”
“Ah, now you sound like Mick, pleading with me to give you a chance, back then! No, go you to the hospital, you're quite right. We need to find out who she is and to trace her family.”
At the hospital, the girl was still unconscious. Catriona looked through the case she'd brought with her, finding only riding-clothes and nightwear. But inside the case, there was a faded label that read “V Marlow, Kingscote School”.
Back at Cornanagh, Elizabeth volunteered to do the research necessary to find the school, and see whether they could give a lead on the girl, while Catriona joined Selina, her father and her niece working the many horses in training. Michael was no longer able to ride much – his leg, torn by shrapnel forty years earlier, was no longer strong enough to give the aids – but his eye for a horse was as keen as ever, and he kept up a constant stream of orders and criticism, helping to get the best out of both the horses and the riders.
At lunchtime, however, Elizabeth was able to tell them that she had contacted Kingscote School, and found that the girl was probably a Virginia Marlow, who should have returned at the start of the summer term, two days ago, but who was unaccountably missing. She had been given the address and telephone number of Virginia's parents, and had rung them, but had not had a reply. “I will try again when we've finished our lunch,” she added. “I'll ring the hospital first, though, and find out if there is any news.”
The news proved to be mixed. Virginia had regained consciousness, and was no longer in any physical danger, but appeared to be suffering from shock. “She may have had some kind of nervous collapse; right now she seems unable to speak, or form coherent words.”
Later, when Elizabeth had succeeded in contacting Virginia's mother, she was rather horrified. Mrs Marlow had thanked her for the information, but appeared to have no idea of coming to her daughter's aid. “Apparently her husband, who is in the Falklands, telegraphed that he was sick of Virginia and her shenanigans, and that she would have to sort herself out. The poor child, she's not 17 yet, I gather.”
“What can we do? She really isn't our responsibility, but we can't just leave her there with no money and nowhere to go.”
“Ah well, she came to us, didn't she? She obviously likes horses, and probably being around them will help her recover. I wonder how she heard of us?”
“She didn't say. But there was that article about us in that British magazine a few months ago – I wonder if she came across that? But what was she thinking, not to go back to school, and for her family to be so angry with her? I hope she's not in trouble.”
“I asked about that,” interjected Elizabeth. “They say there's no sign of pregnancy or anything of that kind. But girls that age can have very funny turns.”
Meanwhile, at Kingscote School, Miss Keith sent for Ann Marlow to tell her that Virginia appeared to be in hospital in Ireland, and that her parents had been informed. “She will not, of course, be returning here, but I wished to spare you and your sisters any further worry.” Ann passed the message on to her twin sisters, and, although she was concerned for Ginty, she was more focussed on her work. Her mother's letter, therefore, two days later, came as rather a shock.
“When Ginty first disappeared, I telegraphed Daddy; he is naturally furious with her, after all the trouble she caused last term, and has wired back that she has made her own bed and must lie on it. I did telegraph him again when I heard she was in hospital, but he is adamant. The people who found her seem very nice, and I am in touch with them by telephone, but I'm afraid she will have to cope as best she can.”
Ann was horrified. She had been irritated enough by Ginty's behaviour the previous term, and even more so by the realisation that she had been cowardly enough to run away, rather than return to school and face up to the consequences of her behaviour. But if she were ill, in hospital.... surely someone should be looking after her, some family member? Ann thought long and hard, and, remembering her sister Lawrie's scornful, “Well, why didn't you ask Him?” last term, when she had inadvertently caused Ginty to get into trouble in the first place, tried to pray as well. And she couldn't get past the fact that she thought her father was wrong. Ginty needed someone who was family to be there with her.
But if she went, she would not be able to return. Miss Keith had made it very clear, two years ago, when Nick's friend Esther had gone home to see about her dog, that the school was not a prison and you could leave at any time – but you could not return. And if she left now, she would not be taking her A levels next summer. And if her father was angry enough, he might forbid her, too, to return to Trennels and perhaps take them at Colebridge Grammar School. What would she do if that happened? Could she support herself? She had always wanted to be a nurse, and maybe she could take an Enrolled course, which didn't require A levels and only took two years. Practical nursing might be better, anyway. And how would she get to Ireland? She didn't have very much money. How had Ginty got there? And why? Why Ireland? And what had gone wrong with her?
Next morning, after a breakfast she had been unable to eat, Ann went to the study to tell Miss Keith that she was going to leave, and why.
“I am sorry, Ann. You are making it very difficult for me, as I'm inclined to sympathise with you. I think you're probably doing the right thing, but you must see that, for the sake of the other girls, I simply can't let you go and come back without a stringent penalty.”
“I understand that, Miss Keith. I don't expect you to take me back. I've thought long and hard about it, as you can imagine – after all, it is my future that is at stake. I hope my parents will let me come home and finish my A levels at the local grammar school, but if they don't, well, I'll manage somehow.”
“Ann, I'm very reluctant to lose you, and there are extenuating circumstances. But if you go, I won't be able to ask you, as I had hoped to do, to be my Head Girl next term. In fact, you would no longer be able to continue as a prefect.”
Ann went pink. Although her family had hinted that being Head Girl was a possibility, Ann herself had not considered it. As for the prefectship, well, that would be a blow, but she could cope.
“You mean, you'd let me come back?”
“If you were not away for too long, yes. Under those conditions, though. And you realise I cannot have Virginia back under any circumstances. She came perilously close to being expelled last term, as I think you know.”
“Yes, Miss Keith.”
“Well, to be practical. How were you planning to get to Ireland?”
“I don't know. I was going to go straight to the travel agent in town and ask.”
“And what about money?”
“I have a little in Savings Certificates that I could cash. Certainly enough to get me to Ireland and back, I think.”
“It can take a few days to cash Savings Certificates. I suggest I pay your fare to Dublin, and send you with sufficient money to cover your expenses there for a few days. This will be put on your bill, and you can sort out how and whether you pay your parents back in due course.”
“Why, thank you Miss Keith, that's extremely generous of you.”
“I wish I didn't have to punish you for going, but you will understand that I can't be seen to set a precedent. But, for what it's worth, I think you're doing the right thing.”
Armed with the Cornanagh telephone number, Ann arrived at Dublin Airport some hours later. Elizabeth Comyn, who answered the telephone, was relieved to learn that a family member had arrived, even if it was only a sister a year older. “If you can take a taxi to the hospital, someone will meet you there. Yes, of course you will stay with us, Captain Carradyne wouldn't hear of your going to a hotel.”
Ginty was huddled in the hospital bed, eyes closed. “Sure, she'll be grand!” said the nurse, possibly with more hope than certainty. “She's just away from us all right now, while things are a bit much, but she'll be grand. And I'm sure she'll be pleased you're here, even if she can't talk to you today.”
Ann sat quietly by Ginty's bed, talking to her about nothing in particular. She didn't mention school, knowing that Ginty's problems may well have been triggered by the events of last term, but talked of her journey, telling her about the airport, and the meal she had eaten on the plane, and similar trivia. Ginty didn't answer her, or open her eyes, but her body gradually relaxed and her grip on Ann's hand strengthened.
After an hour, the nurse came in. “There now, doesn't she already look better. Ginty, is she? There now, Ginty, your sister needs a break, but she'll be back tomorrow, so she will. You relax and sleep, now, and you'll be much better in the morning!” To Ann, she added, “Mrs Roche is here, that's Miss Carradyne's sister, in her car, to take you back to Cornanagh for the night.”
Sybil Roche was kind and chatty, demanding very little of Ann, who was suddenly very tired. And when she reached Cornanagh, Elizabeth Comyn wouldn't allow anybody to talk to her, but saw to it that she had a good meal and went straight to bed. “How kind people are!” was her last thought, before she slept.
Next morning, Selina Carradyne took her to the hospital, where they found that Ginty had roused a little, enough to drink a cup of tea and eat a slice of bread and butter, although she still hadn't spoken.
Ann again sat quietly with her, telling her about the house at Cornanagh, the busy household, in many ways very like Trennels, but in other ways so different. “And when you're better, they've invited us to stay for a few days while we decide what to do for the best.”
Ginty suddenly opened her eyes again and smiled at her sister. “Ann, what are you doing here? Am I ill?”
“Not very ill,” said Ann, who hoped the worst was now over. “You sat out of doors all night and got very chilled, silly you, and it's taken you awhile to thaw out. But you're going to be okay.”
“Thank you.” Ginty, still very weak, snuggled down again, and soon it was obvious that she had gone to sleep. “Sure, and isn't that the best thing for her!” exclaimed the nurse. “When she wakes up, she'll probably be nearly better, although she could do with counselling, I think.”
“Mrs Roche said she knew someone who would help,” said Ann, marvelling yet again at how kind the whole Carradyne family had been, not asking questions or grudging hospitality in any way.
Ginty's recovery continued and by the next day, she was well enough to be discharged. On arrival at Cornanagh, the first thing she did was to apologise to Catriona for having arrived uninvited. “I don't know what I was thinking, or even if I was thinking,” she admitted. "And then I didn't know what to do, so I just sat. It seemed logical at the time, even though I know now how stupid it was."
“Sure, you're okay,” said Catriona. “It's just that you weren't well. It happens, and sometimes we do mad things when we're not well. Don't worry about it.”
“But you're so kind, taking in a random stranger who collapsed on your doorstep!”
“Ah, but you're a random stranger who loves horses, and that makes all the difference! Are you feeling able to come and see our stables?”
Ann, who could take horses or leave them, and mostly left them, elected to stay behind and help Elizabeth Comyn organise the lunch. Bridie Doolin, who had cooked for the family for many years, had now retired, and her place had been taken by a relative, Roisín, who was widely held to be as good as, if not better than, her predecessor. “I do the shopping, and make sure that we know how many there are for meals,” explained Elizabeth. “I'm in charge of the management of the house, leaving the others free to run the stables. It's an arrangement that has worked well for a number of years.”
The others came in for lunch, and even Ginty had a good appetite. Afterwards, they gathered, along with Sybil, who had joined them, to discuss what was to be done. It was agreed that, while Ginty was obviously getting better, a course of counselling would be a good thing to help her recover fully. Sybil had a friend who would undertake this free of charge. “And meanwhile, you can stay here,” said the Captain. “I can use another hand in the stables, and that's what you thought you wanted when you came.”
“Don't feel you have to!” exclaimed Sybil. “Dad is a fearful martinet, you'll never believe you can do anything right.”
“Well, you have to do things properly, or not at all!” exclaimed Catriona, and the sisters began what was obviously a long-standing argument.
Ginty said, “I should love to. I did actually mean it when I said I'd love to work here, even though I didn't go about it the right way. Thank you.”
Ann sighed with relief. “Then if you are settled, I'll be able to go back to school and carry on.”
“Will Miss Keith let you? I thought she'd be bound to expel you.”
“She said not,” and Ann explained the agreement they had reached.
“But that seems so unfair! Here am I having this marvellous time and being looked after, and you have to go back and be stripped of your prefectship and not be Head Girl.”
“It doesn't matter, you know. Yes, I would have liked to have been Head Girl, but just think, I can concentrate on my A levels without having to worry about all the responsibilities of being a prefect, and so on.”
“Yes, but if Keith does it all publicly and goes on about what a disgrace to the school it is....”
“Which she will, but you see, I know she doesn't actually mean it. She said I was doing the right thing, and she's only punishing me because she has to be seen to enforce the rules. And after all, you can't have every other Lower Fourth thinking it would be clever to go home whenever it wanted as long as it had what it thought was a good excuse....”
“No, I know, but....”
“Listen, we'll stay in touch. I'll write, and phone when I can – not from school, obviously, but in the holidays. And maybe I'll be able to come over next summer, when I've left.”
And, refusing all offers to stay for another couple of days, Ann flew back to England and school next day, leaving Ginty to finish recovering and to start her new life as a stable-hand at Cornanagh.