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!
Sailing, though not so dangerous as earlier in the war, is still far from safe. Many passenger ships have been destroyed by the German navy, mostly hospital ships or troop transports, but also unarmed liners carrying civilians. No matter. A hundred U-boats lined up in the harbour taking aim would not stop Maud Gonne from travelling now.
Windy weather might have, but though it’s a blustery day in Le Havre, it has been pronounced calm enough. The English Channel ferry will sail. Iseult knows it’s simple-minded to regret this. A delayed sailing wouldn’t save her. If they don’t leave today, they’ll leave tomorrow. Yet one more day, even one more hour, would have been something worth holding.
They go to England knowing the authorities are certain to use their rights under DORA, the wartime Defence of the Realm act, to refuse them the right to travel on to Ireland. Moura intends that they should all break the law, and travel to Ireland in disguise as soon as they can. What is an English law to Moura? No more than a snap of the fingers. What is a world war? Money? Friends?
Ties to country and culture? Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. She has liquidated her assets, her home is sold, Ireland is to be her country now. And Iseult’s too.
Willie’s suggestion that Iseult might remain behind in London provoked an outburst of cold fury such as they hadn’t seen since the early days of their dalliance in 1916. She was wiping down a table at the time and she flung the cloth on the floor and launched herself on a long rant that spoke—shouted—of a mother's feeling for her children, and Iseult's need for her mother, and Willie’s duties as a friend of the family and Iseult’s guardian.
She must have the children with her in Ireland. They must take their place in the great story that was unfolding there. She must be allowed to order their affairs as she felt best. She was their mother.
Her outburst revealed a harried, weathered, and obsessed mind, frantic and full of vulnerabilities, thinking itself a victim, and ended by putting him firmly in the place she had now allocated to him. “I thank you Willie for your kindness in escorting us to England but I must ask you not to meddle further.”
They withdrew, bruised, each feeling blackened by the other. And Iseult, hearing of the argument from Willie, admitted defeat. And now all her belongings, dresses and coats, books and papers, are compressed into a trunk and two small book boxes, set into the bowel of the ship, alongside Moura’s and Seán’s and Josephine’s and Delaney's luggage, a stack of aged leather trunks with brass latches.
Travel trunks show propensities, Iseult thinks, as she watches them being loaded. A trunk has individuality, a smell, soap and wax and camphor. Its own voice as it creaks open. A long memory of trains, train rides, train stations. And a sweet and starchy smell of family and familiarity,.
“Iseult is crying again,” says Seán.
“Shhhh boy!” she snaps. “What have I told you about carrying your tales?”
“Iseult, whosoever you blame for your sulks, it is surely not Bichon,” scolds Maud. “Please, try to contain yourself.”
Delaney said, “The flag’s up. It is time to board.”
Maud Gonne leads the family procession, tall in black, her veiled head dipping under the low strut of the entrance. Seán carries Coco the parrot in his cage and behind him come Delaney, Josephine and various attendants, carrying the canary cages. WB carries Minnalouche in a shopping basket, on a cushion of red velvet for Iseult, who hobbles aboard, on her cane, last and lingering, in tears again, recalling their apartment with the furniture shrouded in drapes, the trot-trot-trot of the cab horse clopping a lonesome goodbye down the streets of Passy. The spiritual solution, she knew, was to listen for the moments of love in the sound of the future, to let the bygone past slip into soundlessness. She tries. She reaches for hope through her tears as she whispers goodbye, and hears a clear voice saying to her “Go back to God”. Dear God, dear France, adieu. Adieu.
Down the slippery steps they go, into the bowels of the ship. A carpet, some lights and trinkets attempt to give a feeling of luxury as they enter the first-class accommodation, but wartime privations are evident, with the library, lounge, and card room all closed. Maud Gonne pays the porter and as soon as he has closed the door, throws herself upon her berth and sighs a loud sigh of relief, a flamboyant breath that almost blows Iseult out the door, up onto deck, across the gangplank, and back to Paris. Moura in this showily exultant mood is intolerable. Iseult turns her back to her, fiddling with her sponge bag and arranging her cot.
Beneath her feet, the floor shudders, The ship engines striking up. There is still time. What would happen if she were to tell Moura that she does not want to go? If she was to take her trunk and book box and walk back across the plank and wave them off? She is 23 years old, nobody can stop her. Except herself. It is not even a matter of having the courage to know that she would survive but the courage to know whether indeed she does not wish to leave.
Last night, she went for a walk along the dear familiar streets but the Paris to which she wished to bid adieu had already fled, taken over by soldiers of all grades, English Tommies and a profusion of broad-hatted Americans but also Indians, Senegalese, Moroccans, Serbs and Portuguese. Chic officers on leave but still loving to sport their pantalons rouges and braided kepis.
Slouching poilus in their baggy trousers and ill-fitting coats. All looked like they wished to shrug off their coats and roll up their sleeves — it was a warm evening – but they were too intent on being handsome soldiers.
She allowed no look on their part to penetrate her attention. She has no interest in wartime interludes, a touching and then a parting in thoughts of death. Like Thora, it was once her aim to win the heart of every admirable young man she meets. It is what young, beautiful ladies are supposed to do but she no longer wishes to play with hearts. Not because she has become a prude, but rather because she has a growing feeling that if one is not in love, playing with love is not so much fun after all. It can even become a bore. A very great bore.
France now feels derelict, socially dispossessed – of good food, of culture, of fine talk, of the arts, of young men… Most especially of young men. More than a million of them are dead. Whereas in Ireland there is (so far at any rate) no conscription. There, young men roam freely yet. Perhaps there, she might she find one of her own?
That is what she wants now, a true love of her own. A love sustained by something stronger than the effort the lovers make for each other, stronger than their bodily desire, stronger than any of the wickednesses that clever people committed for love, stronger than the conflicts that love always seemed to inspire. Something that would remain undamaged by the treacheries of memory, the ambivalence that love always seems to inspire, like a fiddlestring, snapping and twanging. A love unexpected, innocent and guileless, like the love of a child, beyond the limitations of people, beyond change and forgetfulness.
Such a love comes but once in a lifetime. She knows that now. If it never comes, then one is better off alone, better off without. She takes out a handkerchief, blows her nose, tries to stem the ceaseless spring of tears. Oh what is she to do? Is she being punished? That voice saying to her “Go back to God”. How far she feels from Him.
A diffident knock comes to the door. “Willie, no doubt,” says Moura.
And indeed it is he, the faithful factotum, clutching his hat to his chest. “I wondered whether anybody fancied a turn on deck?” he booms. “To watch us pull out of harbour?”
“Iseult will accompany you, Willie,” Maud says.
Iseult shakes her head.
“Oh heavens Iseult, do. It will do you good to get some air instead of moping about here. Seán, mon cher, where is the bird seed? We must feed the birds.”
On deck, a crowd has gathered, some strolling, some standing and waving to relatives who flutter handkerchiefs from the pier. They walk, a small distance between them, comfortably silent. WB is proud of all the people who turn to look at Iseult’s arresting figure. Her dried tears give her an even more ethereal air, incomparably touching. Yet if he were to praise her beauty, she would act as though it is another he praises, or even that he is mocking her.
He has great feeling for the child, of course he has, her situation has all his pity, as does her self-torture. He has spent the recent days and nights in Paris recognising that he is not, in fact, mad with love for her, merely concerned for her welfare. He has stood in loco parentis for so long that her rejection does not leave him to downcast. Her indolence, her erratic moods, her chain-smoking – even here, on this blustery deck, she cannot forsake the inevitable cigarette. Perhaps it is as well that they are not to be wed. He would, however, wish to do anything he could to see her free of unhappiness.
Maud has taken to repeating of late her conviction that Iseult is, in a sense, his child, a progeny of their connection of long ago. When carrying and bearing Iseult, she says, she was full of his ideas. He has agreed, instead, to become her guardian, to watch over her in the new life she faces in London and Dublin.
He worries at the new problems that accompany his promise to be her guardian. Above all things now, he needs tranquillity and order in his personal affairs now. He is to buy his tower and he is determined to marry by his astrological deadline in October.
“You know, my dear, you have a horoscope that makes me dread melancholia. You kill yourself with self-analysis. These metaphysical sins of yours – not enough love for God, for others, and so on – have you ever thought that you might be mistaken? That it is only silly, over-subtle thought”.
“Oh, I know there is no poetry in it, no bitterness or sadness even. Just a dull knowledge that I am not reliable to others, nor even to myself”.
The ship’s whistle sounds, a shrill and resonating sound, above the racket of the hawsers and the screaming of the gulls, going out from the ship like an echo. The ship moves slowly through the port, then speeds as the expanse of the sea opens up. The waves are turbulent but hardly rough. They recall trips for each other to and from Folkestone and Dover, where , with both recalling one crossing they were both on, where the waves were so high as to threaten to breach the coal bunkers and drown the livestock, and everyone was laid flat with sea sickness. But before long they are back to the subject of themselves.
“Melancholia is the peril of sensitive youth,” WB assures her. “I too made myself suffer to illness with self-analysis.”
“I hear a voice always,” Iseult whispers, almost inaudible. “Saying useless, useless, strangely useless thing…”
“These are your mother's words. Perhaps if you were to be free of Moura for a while…”
“Well yes, but how am I to arrange it”?
“You know how you might”.
“Oh Willie, I am ashamed of our marriage talk. Even if I loved you wildly – and I tell you again, I do not – it would distress Moura too deeply”.
“She gives no thought to the impossible life she asks of you”.
Loose strands of her hair are flickering across her face, brushed by sea air.
“My dear, do consider yet a while. You know I can show you a very different Ireland to Moura’s world of activists and rebels, where you can make of yourself a poetess, surrounded by artists.”
“But love, Willie. What of love?”
He touches her hand, very briefly, where it rests on the railings, as he does noticing again that his hand is the oldest part of him, more wrinkled than the rest, and patterned with a branch of veins. “Love takes many forms, my dear, as you will realise when you are older.”
“Yet if I were to ask you: you wouldn't actually say you love me, Willie, would you?”
He cannot answer her. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps he is too old for love.
“You are more like your mother than you think, my dear.”
“Why? Because I refuse you?”
“When you talk of love, I see in you much that reminds me of Moura when she was a girl. Though she has forgotten her blood ever ran wild, I have not. You also were too wildly bred to mate with a man of fifty years. You wish to choose a young man, for wildness sake. My heart is old, I cannot pay its tribute of wild tears. That does not mean I do not love.”
She pushes back the strands of hair whipped by the wind. “When I went away by myself at Havre, Willie, such a rush of emotion came to me. I could almost hear the answer spoken: “Go back to Christ”. Alas, is it true? Hermas and Cypris lead to knowledge—but is peace only in Christ?”
With this question, she has moved herself to tears again. She turns so her back is to him and the other people strolling the deck and stands helpless behind the tears that flow down her face. “Oh Willie, I am so ashamed. It is so selfish of me not wanting you to marry anyone else.”
“You have said nothing to me of not wanting this”
She looks down over the railings. The day is fading. The throb of the ship cuts the water in white slices that become more obvious as the water blackens in the rising, moonless night.
“Does this mean…?”
“It means I am selfish, Willie. I do not want to lose your friendship”.
“Don't decide now. Settle into London, know better your own mind and, in a few days, we shall meet. You shall give me your answer then”.