THE TWO MEN stood by the open grave solemnly, each one absorbed in his own thoughts. The wind had turned cold as evening approached, whipping orange-coloured leaves in and around the old headstones as if they had independent will. Clouds had gathered overhead earlier in the day, so it was only a matter of time before rain began to fall in earnest.
The older man was short and rather rotund, with a greying goatee and a blustery face. He wore dark tan khaki trousers and a cream-coloured knit sweater with deep pockets. At the moment, he had the balls of both fists shoved into the pockets in an attempt to keep the cold wind from his hands. He glanced nervously at his companion at the graveside, who was a youthful and much taller man.
The younger man was lost in his own thoughts still, paying little heed to the weather or the older man standing next to him. He stared down at the freshly covered grave and experienced a stab of regret, a wave of sadness which surprised him. He was slender, with a head full of black hair that reached to the tips of his jawbone. His eyes were also dark, almost black, with a piercing appearance. His skin was fair, but at the same time held a faint olive-tint, especially prominent around his eyes. He was otherwise clean-shaven, the shape of his nose long and lean. His lips were full and well-shaped, but they were pursed as his preoccupation continued.
"We should get back," the older man suggested kindly. "It's going to start raining at any minute."
The younger man looked at him, as if realizing he was there for the first time.
"I suppose you're right, Daniel." He shook his head. "I just can't believe the old blighter is dead."
"There was no love lost between the two of you," Daniel replied, gently touching the man's arm to steer him away from the grave. "You fought with old Thomas more often than not."
"But we respected each other," the younger man maintained, resisting the subtle tug of Daniel's hand on his arm. "I may have irritated Thomas as much as he did me, but we also had respect for what the other was."
Daniel released the younger man's arm. "I can't believe you're saying that, Shane Michael Gallagher. Not when you know how he left his estate."
Shane's eyes darkened, narrowing slightly. Then he glanced at Daniel. "Even with that, I feel a great sadness that old Thomas is gone." He paused, and then started walking slowly away from the grave. Daniel followed him. "That's to be the way of it, then," Shane continued softly. "You have to follow his instructions, don't you?"
"You know I'm obligated to do so," Daniel responded. "I may be your friend, Shane, but I was also a friend to Thomas, and I have to honour his last wishes as his counsel. Besides, his will is legal and binding. There's no way around it, as much as I'd like to see it otherwise."
The two men continued to walk along as they made their way out of the ancient cemetery, again lost in their own thoughts.
Shane Gallagher was the caretaker of the local manor house, Butler Castle. Daniel Kent had been friend and solicitor to the recently deceased Thomas Bryan, owner of the manor and its demesne. Locals were fond of saying that Thomas had been as old as the hills. Rumour had it he had reached his 99th birthday just prior to passing a week ago.
Thomas had held ownership of Butler Castle for well over sixty years before he died. Many Clonmel natives were hard put to recall if he had any blood heirs left in Ireland to take the reins of the ancient estate. The castle itself was in superb condition, thanks in no small part to Shane, and it was assumed the place was worth a fortune. Thomas had been a reclusive eccentric. He had never married, yet often hinted he had many distant relatives living in America. None of the locals had ever seen any Bryan kin in the area, although there were whispers that Bryan also came from English stock, stemming from the 16th century.
Shane was a regular at Lonergan's Pub in Clonmel on Saturday nights, although he tended not to mix-it-up with others. He seemed to prefer his own company along with his pint, and often a good book. Yet he was polite when spoken to, and never seemed to have an unkind word to say about anyone.
Once they had settled into the silver Austin mini-metro parked near the graveside, Daniel took the wheel as Shane began speaking again.
"How soon before you notify the next of kin?"
Daniel started the car as he glanced over at Shane. "Right away," he replied. "I'll compose a letter tonight, and mail it by express tomorrow. It has to be done, and the sooner the better. Who knows? Maybe the heir will not be interested in Butler Castle."
"Only in selling it," Shane responded caustically. "Then where will I be?"
Daniel smiled as he drove the metro away from the cemetery. "You can come and work for me. My cottage is a mess, especially the gardens. The loo hasn't worked right in years, and one of the burners on my stove has been out for just as long."
Shane managed to laugh. "I could do all that, but your cottage is small. I'd have it fixed in a few months at the most, and then what? Go back to Dublin?"
Daniel shrugged. "That would be up to you."
The two men were silent for a long time, each thinking his own thoughts again, yet comfortable in the setting.
Suddenly, Shane glanced over at Daniel. "Can you tell me who the heir is? Who did old Thomas leave Butler Castle to?"
Daniel paused, unsure whether to tell Shane the bit of information. Yet, what could it hurt now? Once Daniel informed the heir to Butler Castle of its existence, Shane was bound to find out sooner or later who it was. Being the caretaker of the castle would make it doubly ridiculous to hide the heir's identity from him.
"I wasn't sure if you'd want to know," Daniel said. "You've never expressed any interest until now."
"I had no reason to – until now," Shane replied.
"The heir is an American," Daniel finally responded. "The last of the legitimate Bryan line, or so old Thomas said, besides himself. Her name is Sheila Bryan. She is a college professor living in Maine."
Shane was not sure if he had heard Daniel correctly. "A woman is to inherit Butler Castle? An American woman?"
Daniel nodded. "Yes, this is a fact. She was the only child of Randall and Elaine Bryan, who died about four years ago following a car accident."
"A college professor is to be the new owner of Butler Castle?" Shane asked, still disbelieving. "What is she – close to ancient age herself? Good God, Danny – don't tell me this teacher has no heirs, either."
"None. She was married once, but has no children."
Shane leaned his head back into the car seat, laughter bubbling from his lips. "What kind of joke was old Thomas trying to pull off? An American teacher is not going to be interested in Butler Castle. Oh, she might be interested in the place for some sort of historical purpose, but certainly not to live in. As sure as I'm sitting here, the woman will probably sell off the castle and it will be lost forever."
"Don't be too sure," Daniel warned him.
"Is she even aware of the existence of the castle, or of her inheritance?"
"No. Apparently, her parents didn't have a clue, either. But old Thomas did, and the idea used to tickle him. He thought how shocked these people would be one day to find themselves the owners of such a fine place, along with his other properties. As far as I know, neither Sheila nor her parents knew they were related to Thomas at all. I don't think any of them realized their own family history."
"Not many people bother to go back that far," Shane conceded. "But all the same, oh, this should be a right hoot, this one. I can't wait to see the poor lady's face when she gets a good look at Butler Castle." He paused. "If she decides to come, that is."
"I have a feeling she will come," Daniel said as he turned onto the main street of Clonmel village. "What do you say we have a pint in memory of Thomas? Afterward, I'll take you back to the castle and then get myself home to start that letter."
Shane raised his dark eyebrows at the solicitor. "You'll use any excuse for a pint, won't you Danny?"
Daniel laughed. "You know me too well, Shane. Too well indeed."
"Then pull into Lonergan's," Shane said, laughing in return, warmed by his friend. "We should have two pints, at least."
"My thoughts exactly. You're a man after me own heart, Shane Gallagher. That you are."