The story opens in 1916. The world is at war, Irish freedom fighters have just staged an armed rebellion in Dublin, and the three characters we first met in Her Secret Rose are deeply unsettled. The world famous poet, WB Yeats, “having come to 50 years” has decided it’s high time he was married and, by coincidence, the 1916 Rising has just made a widow of the love of his life, Maud Gonne. Maud’s thoughts are more political than personal. She is frantic to get to Ireland to join the freedom fighters there. While her daughter, Iseult, now 23 years old and as beautiful as her mother was at that age, longs for love, escape, and artistic achievement.
As three talented mavericks try to redeem their past against a background of escalating war and revolution, can they rise to what they truly need from each other? This novel is narrated by Rosy Cross, a working-class Irish woman, who’s spent her life investigating the involvement of these people in the infamous murder of her sister.
This is another snippet from my work in progress, Dancing in the Wind. If you’d like to receive a monthly extract, and contribute to the writing of this book, check out my Patreon Fiction Membership.
Until next time, happy reading!
She says: “I do long for a small wild patch of earth I could call mine.”
“You would adore the Irish countryside. And I understand your need of it now.”
“I do need the countryside. The sea. Nature.”
“I used to look at you dancing on the shore at the edge of the sea, or coming in with your arms full of flowers, and think you the most joyous of creatures. Now I know that only in the country can you be free of melancholia for long. But you are cultured, too. I could make you a fine life among artists and writers.”
“Is it far from the beach, your tower?”
“A few miles. We could visit any time.”
“And…” She smiles, willing him to remember. “…draw pentagrams in the sand.”
He looks puzzled for moment, then his brow clears and he takes the cue. “And discuss the best expression of perfect beauty…”
“And what we are going to have for dinner!”
They laugh a companionable laugh, at who they were then, when she was a precocious 15-year-old and he was still enamoured of Moura. From her tingling scalp, down through the nape of her neck and shoulders, down her arms and out the tips of her fingers, something is passing, something she has lived with for a long time, something with a vital, separate life of its own. His eyes are dark, flinty, and still amused. He too seems different.
Fearful, she closes her eyes. A cocoon closes around her and softens. The haze of the afternoon melts away and she feels her internal body, her own inner space, and she feels at home in it, as if the world were performing a ballet, and she has become part of a larger whole. Could it be?
His presence now feels like a clammy mist, a fog with a moist quality. It sits on her skin, a morass of sensation.
Is she telling him that she wants him?
But then Moura, what of Moura?
As if she’d spoken the words aloud, he says, “Don’t answer now. Just tell me that you’ll think about it.”
They have slipped into a routine. They spend mornings and evenings indoors, in literary and spiritual investigation. He makes her ask nicely for cigarettes, doling them out one by one. She dispenses little signs of affection, causing him to exclaim that she would not dare be so tender to a younger man. She considers this, carefully, her head to one side. But it does not stop her doing it again.
He flaunts his erudition, she her beauty, and each admires the other’s display. In short, everything is perfect, if they ignore – and they mostly do – Maud’s withering gaze.
Afternoons are spent outside, walking and running and swimming and bathing in sunshine, all to the backtrack of a sea that is what Iseult calls, “pleasingly untidy” for days, blue in some places, green in others, black in the hollows of the waves and white at the crests, with little streaks of foam all over.
WB is a powerful swimmer from his boyhood summers in Sligo. Iseult says he moves like a pelican on land but like a swan in water.
After a swim, she often runs fast and barefoot across the sands, sometimes with a kite, sometimes just its own sake, for the feeling of wild delirium it can induce. Or dances by the shore, lost in reverie. As Willie watches her run or dance, and watches the rise and fall of her panting ribs afterwards, the movement of her tremulous breath in and out as she lies beside him, he begins to think of her as a hare, a thicket of awareness amid quick movement, feeling its own quickness as it runs ahead.
Lady Gregory recorded one of the most famous legends from hare mythology, concerning a trial for witchcraft in 1663 of an old woman called Julianne Cox. A witness at her trial, a huntsman, swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julianne Cox’s house the dogs hunted one very close… but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julianne Cox herself, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He was so affrighted that his hair stood on end.
“Yeats is in France feeding young rabbits with a spoon,” is how Ezra Pound describes them to friends in London.
A warm, bright, benign, protective circle is how it feels to the two partakers. Outside are pressures: the war, Moura’s baleful eye, Iseult’s looming emigration to Ireland but here at Colleville is the purest safety, within an orbit of two.
There are privations, of course — they live mostly from the vegetable garden Maud had the foresight to plant at Easter but, after London and Paris, Colleville feels free of the war, except for the occasional green-glass globe washed up on the shore, buoys from the nets that catch torpedo boats.
Daily they walk for miles, across the beach or the cliffs or the dunes, four long legs striding strong, walks in which Willie is much taken with elaborating his system of occult philosophy and astrological patterning.
“You are in Phase 14,” he tells her.
“But what does that mean?” Iseult has trouble attributing spiritual significance to some of Willie’s theories, most particularly this “system” of his, which seems more like his attempt to codify and control the world than something of real spiritual merit. She has an instinctive suspicion of anything, like séances or spiritism or fortune telling, that gives a psychic result without inner effort.
Only the purifying fire of love can burn its way into the spiritual world.
A disciplined mystical training, a reshaping of self, a constant working towards transformation, appears to her the only way to get into communication with that which she prefers to call God. Willie has made the system his life’s effort, and his poetry is, but always he attracted to the surface and the immediate.
Or perhaps it is just her poor brain unable to grasp the subtleties of his thought?
He says, “Phase Fifteen is complete subjective or antithetical beauty, where all thought becomes an image and the soul becomes a body. The characteristics of Phase Fourteen, your phase, are a delight in certain glowing or shining images of concentrated force. And an element of frenzy.”
“Frenzy? And I thought I had made upon you a good impression.”
He does not smile. The system must always be taken seriously.
“Who else belongs there?” she mollifies.
“Blake, the great English mystic poet. Rabelais. Helen of Troy. Many other beautiful women. The women of Burne-Jones but not those of -”
“Oh psshh, Willie! You and your beautiful women. Have women without beauty no place in your system?”
“Disparagement of beauty from she who would be a poetess. My dear girl, what mere book’s insight can approach that granted by high female beauty? I should like to slay that half-dead dragon that is your thought in order that…”
“In order that your thought should win over.”
“In order to have you turn your true eye upon your looking glass. If you would but look upon yourself in the mirror, truly look, in an instant you’d have all the wisdom of the ages.”
“So my thought is a half-dead dragon beside my face. Thank you but may I not, instead, put myself to learning, as did you? ”
“A woman’s beauty is the truest wisdom.”
“What? So no beautiful woman can be learned like a man?
“Perhaps she can. But if she has beauty she has no need of learning.”
“Fie, my dragon slayer! This is the twentieth century. You sound like Le Loup.”
“Michaelangelo’s Sistine roof, which you admire so much. Does it not display how the body rules by supernatural right? The artists you admire, Paul Veronese. Does their work not prove that in the end all must come to sight and touch and sinew? All art, in the end, ends with the body.”
Iseult gets up, brushes the sand from her skirts, “I have heard said there is great danger in the body.”
“The Catholic Church.”
“All the churches, I do believe. Surely it is in the mind, in thought that our highest self is found.”
“Did not your Christian God in portioning wine and bread give us his body? Not his thought”.
“Hmmm.” She squints an exaggerated, quizzical squint. “Now my wretched dragon is perplexed.”
This makes him laugh, as it is meant to, his lovely hearty chuckle, with his shoulders up around his ears. She thinks of it as Irish, or at any rate most un-English, this laugh of his.
Iseult gets up, sets off walking. Willie scrambles behind her, talking, talking. “Blessed souls are not complex. A beautiful women lives in simple blessedness and may lead us to the like — if we banish thought.”
“They say such different things in school.”
The weather is perfect, blue above and below a faraway horizon, a cooling breeze puckering the waves, soothing the beat of the sun.
“The ever changing shore,” he says, following her eyes.
“Today it is harmless blue. But yesterday, while you slept, it was mauve amid grey. And a straying spirit had crept over it. Not like the cry of those distant blue hills that sigh: ‘Come! In our distance, in our vagueness, A God is hidden!’ No, a close, encircling cry.”
“This refined spiritual sense of yours — it makes me certain we should marry.”
“But the yearning that comes from me in answer is for a wilderness, Willie. And you want order, not a wilderness.”
They emerge from the dunes at the edge of Maud’s vegetable garden, still debating.
“I have principles to prove me right. I can show you many Latin texts that speak of how a beautiful women is blessedness and can lead poor mortals to the like”.
“Written by men, no doubt”.
Delaney rides across the grass to them on her bicycle.
“What does she want?” Iseult mutters as she approaches.
Delaney dismounts, waving a letter. “Well now, splendid news! Letter here from Mr. Cobb, an old friend of Madame Gonne’s father. And who do you suppose is in charge of the English Passport Office now. I wrote to him a week ago and success already.”
“He’s procured the papers?”
“Yes! Madame will be overjoyed.”
Iseult and Willie exchange alarmed glances.
“So it would appear your assistance wasn’t needed after all, Mr. Yeats. But what a pleasure it’s been to have you visit us again this year.”
But Delaney is biking off toward the house, riding rickety over the bumpy grass, bearing her wonderful news for Maud.
Iseult starts to run to try to catch her up. She must be there when Moura hears this news, to diffuse the Delaney influence.
As must Willie. “Come on!” she calls to him.
He lengthens his stride as she runs ahead over the grass that has many furrows, and holes made by the rabbits, and stones from the beach. It is not a place for running, WB thinks, and sure enough Iseult trips and falls.
She cries out, as a sharp pain pierces her ankle.
Delaney drops her bicycle, runs back, squat down. Willie, loping across, reaches her about the same time.
“Are you all right?”
“I fear not.”
“Where does it hurt?”
“My ankle.” She reaches down to it. “It feels like a large, white-hot needle has been thrust through skin and sinew and between the bones.
“There now, dear. Let’s not fuss”.
“Can you stand?”
“I think so”.
WB helps Iseult stand up, and she leans on his arm, but the first step she takes brings another sharp cry. So he sweeps her up into his arms and carries her to the verandah, where they’re met by Maud.
“Iseult! Ma belle, ma cherie. Whatever has happened?”
“A rabbit hole, I think. My foot – it’s – oh, Moura! It really hurts!”
Maud – “Oh, no! Mon ange! Bring her to the kitchen, Willie.”
Willie carries her there, sets her on a chair, and Maud flies about the room in calmly efficient nursing mode. She swings another chair over, sits down, and gently takes Iseult’s foot in her lap.
“Here, chèrie, let me look at it”.
“Oh, Moura! Please don’t touch it”!
Maud carefully pulls off Iseult’s shoe and inspects the foot and ankle, which is already swelling. “A fracture, I fear?”
“Surely now it’s only a sprain.”
But Maud spent two years nursing war wounded, and knows broken foot when she sees one. “Only an x-ray photograph would tell us for certain”.
“X-ray photograph, is it! Holy Mary, why not a sprinkle of fairy dust while we’re at it?”
“If we were in Paris, either would be possible. As is -“
Maud lays down the foot in her lap, gently but a flare of pain, sharp as a blade, cuts off Iseult’s breath. “Aaugh! Don’t move it”!
“You’ll need the bone set and a splint, that will give comfort for now. Delaney dear, could you fetch the doctor, he may be able to help. Seán, go to the cellar with Josephine and help her chip some ice from the block. Willie, fetch a brandy.”
They all disappear to do as they’re told, leaving Maud holding Iseult’s foot in her lap. “Naughty starling. Wearing those silly summer slippers instead of your boots in the woods”.
Iseult understands. She knows what this smoothness that comes across as cold withdrawal, instead of sympathy, is designed to say. She has not yet cried and her mother is approving, even proud, of that, at the same time that she is fearful for her.
And of course, Iseult realises now, though the pain that is starting to throb in her ankles, for herself. For what this might mean for their removal to Ireland.
What does it mean? They shall see. For now, Iseult does what she has been taught to do. “Silly slippers,” she says, retreating to an internal space, as she was advised when a child. She can do this. She is good at it.