But there is still another vision; and perhaps this solitary dreamer, who has no eyes for the great slopes of Ben-an-Sloich that stretch into the clouds, and no ears for the soft calling of the sea-birds as they wheel over his head, tries hardest to fix this one in his memory. Here she is the neat and watchful house-mistress, with all things bright and shining around her; and she appears, too, as the meek daughter and the kind and caressing sister. Is it not hard that she should be torn from this quiet little haven of domestic duties and family affection to be bound hand and foot in the chains of art, and flung into the arena to amuse that great ghoul-faced thing, the public? The white slave does not complain. While as yet she may, she presides over the cheerful table; and the beautiful small hands are helpful, and that light morning costume is a wonder of simplicity and grace. And then the garden, and the soft summer air, and the pretty ways of the two sisters: why should not this simple, homely, beautiful life last forever, if only the summer and the roses would last forever?
But suppose now that we turn aside from these fanciful pictures of Macleod's and take a more commonplace one of which he could have no notion whatever. It is night—a wet and dismal night—and a four-wheeled cab is jolting along through the dark and almost deserted thoroughfares of Manchester. Miss Gertrude White is in the cab, and the truth is that she is in a thorough bad temper. Whether it was that the unseemly scuffle that took place in the gallery during the performance, or whether it is that the streets of Manchester, in the midst of rain and after midnight are not inspiriting, or whether it is merely that she has got a headache, it is certain that Miss White is in an ill-humor, and that she has not spoken a word to her maid, her only companion, since together they left the theatre. At length the cab stops opposite a hotel, which is apparently closed for the night. They get out, cross the muddy pavements under the glare of a gas-lamp; after some delay get into the hotel; pass through a dimly lit and empty corridor; and then Miss White bids her maid good-night and opens the door of a small parlor.
Here there is a more cheerful scene. There is a fire in the room; and there is supper laid on the table; while Mr. Septimus White, with his feet on the fender and his back turned to the lamp, is seated in an easy-chair, and holding up a book to the light so that the pages almost touch his gold-rimmed spectacles. Miss White sits down on the sofa on the dark side of the room. She has made no response to his greeting of "Well, Gerty?"
At length Mr. White becomes aware that his daughter is sitting there with her things on, and he turns from his book to her.
"Well, Gerty," he repeats, "aren't you going to have some supper?"
"No, thank you," she says.
"Come, come," he remonstrates, "that won't do. You must have some supper. Shall Jane get you a cup of tea?"
"I don't suppose there is any one up below; besides, I don't want it," says Miss White, rather wearily.
"What is the matter?"
"Nothing," she answers; and then she looks at the mantelpiece. "No letter from Carry?"
"Well, I hope you won't make her an actress, papa," observes Miss White, with no relevance, but with considerable sharpness in her tone.
In fact, this remark was so unexpected and uncalled-for that Mr. White suddenly put his book down on his knee, and turned his gold spectacles full on his daughter's face.
"I will beg you to remember, Gerty," he remarked, with some dignity, "that I did not make you an actress, if that is what you imply. If it had not been entirely your wish, I should never have encouraged you; and I think it shows great ingratitude, not only to me but to the public also, that when you have succeeded in obtaining a position such as any woman in the country might envy, you treat your good fortune with indifference, and show nothing but discontent. I cannot tell what has come over you of late. You ought certainly to be the last to say anything against a profession that has gained for you such a large share of public favor—"
"Public favor!" she said, with a bitter laugh. "Who is the favorite of the public in this very town? Why, the girl who plays in that farce—who smokes a cigarette, and walks round the stage like a man, and dances a breakdown. Why wasn't I taught to dance breakdowns?"
Her father was deeply vexed; for this was not the first time she had dropped small rebellious hints. And if this feeling grew, she might come to question his most cherished theories.
"I should think you were jealous of that girl," said he, petulantly, "if it were not too ridiculous. You ought to remember that she is an established favorite here. She has amused these people year after year; they look on her as an old friend; they are grateful to her. The means she uses to make people laugh may not meet with your approval; but she knows her own business, doubtless; and she succeeds in her own way."
"Ah, well," said Miss White, as she put aside her bonnet, "I hope you won't bring up Carry to this sort of life."
"To what sort of life?" her father exclaimed, angrily. "Haven't you everything that can make life pleasant? I don't know what more you want. You have not a single care. You are petted and caressed wherever you go. And you ought to have the delight of knowing that the further you advance in your art the further rewards are in store for you. The way is clear before you. You have youth and strength; and the public is only too anxious to applaud whatever you undertake. And yet you complain of your manner of life."
"It isn't the life of a human being at all," she said, boldly—but perhaps it was only her headache, or her weariness, or her ill-humor, that drove her to this rebellion; "it is the cutting one's self off from everything that makes life worth having. It is a continual degradation—the exhibition of feelings that ought to be a woman's most sacred and secret possession. And what will the end of it be? Already I begin to think I don't know what I am. I have to sympathize with so many characters—I have to be so many different people—that I don't quite know what my own character is, or if I have any at all—"
Her father was staring at her in amazement. What had led her into these fantastic notions? While she was professing that her ambition to become a great and famous actress was the one ruling thought and object of her life, was she really envying the poor domestic drudge whom she saw coming to the theatre to enjoy herself with her fool of a husband, having withdrawn for an hour or two from her housekeeping books and her squalling children? At all events, Miss White left him in no doubt as to her sentiments at that precise moment. She talked rapidly, and with a good deal of bitter feeling; but it was quite obvious, from the clearness of her line of contention, that she had been thinking over the matter. And while it was all a prayer that her sister Carry might be left to live a natural life, and that she should not be compelled to exhibit, for gain or applause, emotions which a woman would naturally lock up in her own heart, it was also a bitter protest against her own lot. What was she to become, she asked? A dram-drinker of fictitious sentiment? A Ten-minutes' Emotionalist? It was this last phrase that flashed in a new light on her father's bewildered mind. He remembered it instantly. So that was the source of inoperation?
"Oh, I see now," he said, with angry scorn. "You have learned your lesson well. A 'Ten-minutes' Emotionalist:' I remember. I was wondering who had put such stuff into your head."
She colored deeply, but said nothing.
"And so you are taking your notion, as to what sort of life you would lead, from a Highland savage—a boor whose only occupations are eating and drinking and killing wild animals. A fine guide, truly! He has had so much experience in aesthetic matters! Or is it metapheesics is his hobby? And what, pray, is his notion as to what life should be? that the noblest object of a man's ambition should be to kill a stag? It was a mistake for Dante to let his work eat into his heart; he should have devoted himself to shooting rabbits. And Raphael—don't you think he would have improved his digestion by giving up pandering to the public taste for pretty things, and taking to hunting wild-boars? that is the theory, isn't it? Is that the metapheesics you have learned?"
"You may talk about it," she said, rather humbly—for she knew very well she could not stand against her father in argument, especially on a subject that he rather prided himself on having mastered—"but you are not a woman, and you don't know what a woman feels about such things."
"And since when have you made the discovery? What has happened to convince you so suddenly that your professional life is a degradation?"
"Oh," she said, carelessly, "I was scarcely thinking of myself. Of course I know what lies before me. It was about Carry I spoke to you."
"Carry shall decide for herself, as you did; and when she has done so, I hope she won't come and blame me the first time she gets some ridiculous idea into her head."
"Now, papa, that isn't fair," the eldest sister said, in a gentler voice. "You know I never blamed you. I only showed you that even a popular actress sometimes remembers that she is a woman. And if she is a woman, you must let her have a grumble occasionally."
This conciliatory tone smoothed the matter down at once; and Mr. White turned to his book with another recommendation to his daughter to take some supper and get to bed.
"I will go now," she said, rather wearily, as she rose. "Good-night, papa—What is that?"
She was looking at a parcel that lay on a chair.
"It came for you, to-night. There was seven and sixpence to pay for extra carriage—it seems to have been forwarded from place to place."
"As if I had not enough luggage to carry about with me!" she said.
But she proceeded to open the parcel all the same, which seemed to be very carefully swathed in repeated covers of canvas. And presently she uttered a slight exclamation. She took up one dark object after another, passing her hand over them, and back again, and finally pressing them to her cheek.
"Just look at these, papa—did you ever in all your life see anything so beautiful?"
She came to a letter, too; which she hastily tore open and read. It was a brief note, in terms of great respect, written by Sir Keith Macleod, and begging Miss White's acceptance of a small parcel of otter-skins, which he hoped might be made into some article of attire. Moreover, he had asked his cousin's advice on the matter; and she thought there were enough; but if Miss White, on further inquiry, found she would rather have one or two more, he had no doubt that within the next month or so he could obtain these also. It was a very respectful note.
But there was no shyness or timidity about the manner of Miss White when she spread those skins out along the sofa, and again and again took them up to praise their extraordinary glossiness and softness.
"Papa," she exclaimed, "it is a present fit for a prince to make!"
"I dare say you will find them useful."
"And whatever is made of them," said she, with decision, "that I shall keep for myself—it won't be one of my stage properties."
Her spirits rose wonderfully. She kept on chatting to her father about these lovely skins, and the jacket she would have of them. She asked why he was so dull that evening. She protested that she would not take any supper unless he had some too: whereupon he had a biscuit and a glass of claret, which, at all events, compelled him to lay aside his book. And then, when she had finished her supper, she suddenly said,—
"Now, Pappy dear, I am going to tell you a great secret. I am going to change the song in the second act."
"Nonsense!" said he; but he was rather glad to see her come back to the interest of her work.
"I am," she said, seriously. "Would you like to hear it?"
"You will wake the house up."
"And if the public expect an actress to please them," she said, saucily, "they must take the consequences of her practising."
She went to the piano, and opened it. There was a fine courage in her manner as she struck the chords and sang the opening lines of the gay song:—
"'Threescore o' nobles rode up the King's ha' But bonnie Glenogie's the flower of them a', Wi' his milk-white steed and his bonnie black e'e.'"
—but here her voice dropped, and it was almost in a whisper that she let the maiden of the song utter the secret wish of her heart—
"'Glenogie, dear mither, Glenogie for me.'
"Of course," she said, turning round to her father, and speaking in a business-like way, though there was a spice of proud mischief in her eyes, "There is a stumbling-block, or where would the story be! Glenogie is poor; the mother will not let her daughter have anything to do with him; the girl takes to her bed with the definite intention of dying."
She turned to the piano again.
"'There is, Glenogie, a letter for thee, Oh, there is, Glenogie, a letter for thee. The first line he looked at, a light laugh laughed he; But ere he read through it, tears blinded his e'e.'
"How do you like the air, papa?"
Mr. White did not seem over well pleased. He was quite aware that his daughter was a very clever young woman; and he did not know what insane idea might have got into her head of throwing an allegory at him.
"The air," said he, coldly, "is well enough. But I hope you don't expect an English audience to understand that doggerel Scotch."
"Glenogie understand it, any way," said she, blithely, "and naturally he rode off at once to see his dying sweetheart.
"'Pale and wan was she, when Glenogie gaed ben, But rosy-red grew she when Glenogie sat down. She turned away her head, but the smile was in her e'e, Oh, binna feared, mither, I'll maybe no dee.'"
She shut the piano.
"Isn't it charmingly simple and tender, papa?" she said, with the same mischief in her eyes.
"I think it is foolish of you to think of exchanging that piece of doggerel—"
"For what?" said she, standing in the middle of the room. "For this?"
And therewith she sang these lines—giving an admirable burlesque imitation of herself, and her own gestures, and her own singing in the part she was then performing:—
"The morning bells are swinging, ringing, Hail to the day! The birds are winging, singing To the golden day— To the joyous day— The morning bells are swinging, ringing, And what do they say? O bring my love to my love! O bring my love to-day! O bring my love to my love! To be my love alway!'"
It certainly was cruel to treat poor Mrs. Ross's home-made lyrics so; but Miss White was burlesquing herself as well as the song she had to sing. And as her father did not know to what lengths this iconoclastic fit might lead her, he abruptly bade her good-night and went to bed, no doubt hoping that next morning would find the demon exorcised from his daughter.
As for her, she had one more loving look over the skins, and then she carefully read through the note that accompanied them. There was a smile on her face—perhaps of pleasure, perhaps of amusement at the simplicity of the lines. However, she turned aside, and got hold of a small writing-desk, which she placed on the table.
"'Oh, here is, Glenogie, a letter for thee,'"
she hummed to herself, with a rather proud look on her face, as she seated herself and opened the desk.
"FHIR A BHATA!"
Young Ogilvie had obtained some brief extension of his leave, but even that was drawing to a close; and Macleod saw with a secret dread that the hour of his departure was fast approaching. And yet he had not victimized the young man. After that first burst of confidence he had been sparing in his references to the trouble that had beset him. Of what avail, besides, could Mr. Ogilvie's counsels be? Once or twice he had ventured to approach the subject with some commonplace assurances that there were always difficulties in the way of two people getting married, and that they had to be overcome with patience and courage. The difficulties that Macleod knew of as between himself and that impossible goal were deeper than any mere obtaining of the consent of friends or the arrangement of a way of living. From the moment that the terrible truth was forced on him he had never regarded his case but as quite hopeless; and yet that in no way moderated his consuming desire to see her—to hear her speak—even to have correspondence with her. It was something that he could send her a parcel of otter-skins.
But all the same Mr. Ogilvie was in some measure a friend of hers. He knew her—he had spoken to her—no doubt when he returned to the South he would see her one day or another, and he would surely speak of the visit he had paid to Castle Dare. Macleod set about making that visit as pleasant as might be, and the weather aided him. The fair heavens shone over the windy blue seas; and the green island of Ulva lay basking in the sunlight, and as the old Umpire, with her heavy bows parting the rushing waves, carried them out to the west, they could see the black skarts standing on the rocks of Gometra, and clouds of puffins wheeling round the dark and lonely pillars of Staffa; while away in the north, as they got clear of Treshanish Point, the mountains of Rum and of Skye appeared a pale and spectral blue, like ghostly shadows at the horizon. And there was no end to the sports and pastimes that occupied day after day. On their first expedition up the lonely corries of Ben-an-Sloich young Ogilvie brought down a royal hart—though his hand trembled for ten minutes after he pulled the trigger. They shot wild duck in Loch Scridain, and seals in Loch-na-Keal, and rock-pigeons along the face of the honey-combed cliffs of Gribun. And what was this new form of sport? They were one day being pulled in the gig up a shallow loch in the hope of finding a brood or two of young mergansers, when Macleod, who was seated up at the bow, suddenly called to the man to stop. He beckoned to Ogilvie, who went forward and saw, quietly moving over the sea-weed, a hideously ugly fish with the flat head and sinister eyes of a snake. Macleod picked up the boat-hook, steadied himself in the boat, and then drove the iron spike down.
"I have him," he said. "That is the snake of the sea—I hate him as I hate a serpent."
He hoisted out of the water the dead dog-fish, which was about four feet long, and then shook it back.
"Here, Ogilvie," said he, "take the boat-hook. There are plenty about here. Make yourself St. Patrick exterminating snakes."
Ogilvie tried the dog-fish spearing with more or less success; but it was the means of procuring for him a bitter disappointment. As they went quietly over the sea-weed—the keel of the boat hissing through it and occasionally grating on the sand—they perceived that the water was getting a bit deeper, and it was almost impossible to strike the boat-hook straight. At this moment, Ogilvie, happening to cast a glance along the rocks close by them, started and seized Macleod's arm. What the frightened eyes of the younger man seemed to see was a great white and gray object lying on the rocks, and staring at him with huge black eyes. At first it almost appeared to him to be a man with a grizzled and hairy face; then he tried to think of some white beast with big black eyes; then he knew. For the next second there was an unwieldy roll down the rocks, and then a heavy splash in the water; and the huge gray seal had disappeared. And there he stood helpless, with the boat-hook in his hand.
"It is my usual luck," said he, in despair. "If I had had my rifle in my hand, we should never have got within a hundred yards of the beast. But I got an awful fright. I never before saw a live seal just in front of one's nose like that."
"You would have missed him," said Macleod, coolly.
"At a dozen yards?"
"Yes. When you come on one so near as that, you are too startled to take aim. You would have blazed away and missed."
"I don't think so," said Ogilvie, with some modest persistence. "When I shot that stag, I was steady enough, though I felt my heart thumping away like fun."
"There you had plenty of time to take your aim—and a rock to rest your rifle on." And then he added: "You would have broken Hamish's heart, Ogilvie, if you had missed that stag. He was quite determined you should have one on your first day out; and I never saw him take such elaborate precautions before. I suppose it was terribly tedious to you; but you may depend on it it was necessary. There isn't one of the younger men can match Hamish, though he was bred a sailor."
"Well," Mr. Ogilvie admitted, "I began to think we were having a great deal of trouble for nothing; especially when it seemed as though the wind were blowing half a dozen ways in the one valley."
"Why, man," Macleod said, "Hamish knows every one of those eddies just as if they were all down on a chart. And he is very determined, too, you shall have another stag before you go, Ogilvie; for it is not much amusement we have been giving you since you came to us."
"That is why I feel so particularly jolly at the notion of having to go back," said Mr. Ogilvie, with very much the air of a schoolboy at the end of his holiday. "The day after to-morrow, too!"
"To-morrow, then, we will try to get a stag for you; and the day after you can spend what time you can at the pools in Glen Muick."
These last two days were right royal days for the guest at Castle Dare. On the deer-stalking expedition Macleod simply refused to take his rifle with him and spent all his time in whispered consultations with Hamish, and with eager watching of every bird whose solitary flight along the mountain-side might startle the wary hinds. After a long day of patient and stealthy creeping, and walking through bogs and streams, and slow toiling up rocky slopes, the party returned home in the evening; and when it was found that a splendid stag—with brow, bay, and tray, and crockets complete—was strapped on to the pony, and when the word was passed that Sandy the red-haired and John from the yacht were to take back the pony to a certain well-known cairn where another monarch of the hills lay slain, there was a great rejoicing through Castle Dare, and Lady Macleod herself must needs come out to shake hands with her guest, and to congratulate him on his good fortune.
"It is little we have been able to do to entertain you," said the old silver-haired lady, "but I am glad you have got a stag or two."
"I knew what Highland hospitality was before I came to Castle Dare," said the boy, modestly. "But you have been kinder to me even than anything I knew before."
"And you will leave the heads with Hamish," said she, "and we will send them to Glasgow to be mounted for you, and then we will send them South to you."
"Indeed no," said he (though he was thinking to himself that it was no wonder the Macleods of Dare were poor); "I will not put you to any such trouble. I will make my own arrangements with Hamish."
"Then you will tell him not to forget Aldershot."
"I think, Lady Macleod," said the young lieutenant, "that my mess-companions will be sorry to hear that I have left Dare. I should think they ought to have drunk your health many times ere now."
Next day, moreover, he was equally successful by the side of the deep brown pools in Glen Muick. He was a pretty fair fisherman, though he had had but small experience with such a mighty engine of a rod as Hamish put into his hands. When, however, he showed Hamish the fine assortment of salmon flies he had brought with him, the old man only shook his head. Thereafter, whenever Hamish went with him, nothing was said about flies until they neared the side of the brawling stream that came pouring down between the gray rocks and the patches of moist brown moor. Hamish would sit down on a stone, and take out a tin box and open it. Then he would take a quick look round—at the aspect of the clouds, the direction of the wind, and so forth; and then, with a nimbleness that any one looking at his rough hands and broad thumbs would have considered impossible, would busk up a weapon of capture that soon showed itself to be deadly enough. And on this last day of Ogilvie's stay at Castle Dare he was unusually lucky—though of course there were one or two heartrending mishaps. As they walked home in the evening—the lowering day had cleared away into a warm sunset, and they could see Colonsay, and Fladda, and the Dutchman's Cap, lying dark and purple on a golden sea—Ogilvie said:—
"Look here, Macleod, if you would like me to take one of these salmon for Miss White, I could take it as part of my luggage, and have it delivered at once."
"That would be no use," said he, rather gloomily. "She is not in London. She is at Liverpool or Manchester by this time. I have already sent her a present."
Ogilvie did not think fit to ask what; though he had guessed.
"It was a parcel of otter-skins," Macleod said. "You see, you might present that to any lady—it is merely a curiosity of the district—it is no more than if an acquaintance were to give me a chip of quartz he had brought from the Rocky Mountains with a few grains of copper or silver in it."
"It is a present any lady would be glad to have," observed Mr. Ogilvie, with a smile. "Has she got them yet?"
"I do not know," Macleod answered. "Perhaps there is not time for an answer. Perhaps she has forgotten who I am, and is affronted at a stranger sending her a present."
"Forgotten who you are!" Ogilvie exclaimed; and then he looked round to see that Hamish and Sandy the red-haired were at a convenient distance. "Do you know this, Macleod? A man never yet was in love with a woman without the woman being instantly aware of it."
Macleod glanced at him quickly; then turned away his head again, apparently watching the gulls wheeling high over the sea—black spots against the glow of the sunset.
"That is foolishness," said he. "I had a great care to be quite a stranger to her all the time I was in London. I myself scarcely knew—how could she know? Sometimes I thought I was rude to her, so that I should deceive myself into believing she was only a stranger."
Then he remembered one fact, and his downright honesty made him speak again.
"One night, it is true," said he—"it was the last night of my being in London—I asked a flower from her. She gave it to me. She was laughing at the time. That was all."
The sunset had gone away, and the clear northern twilight was fading too, when young Ogilvie, having bade good-bye to Lady Macleod and her niece Janet, got into the broad-beamed boat of the fishermen, accompanied by his friend. There was something of a breeze, and they hoisted a lugsail so that they should run out to meet the steamer. Donald the piper lad was not with them; Macleod wanted to speak to his friend Ogilvie as he was leaving.
And yet he did not say anything of importance. He seemed to be chiefly interested in finding out whether Ogilvie could not get a few days' leave, about Christmas, that he might come up and try the winter shooting. He was giving minute particulars about the use of arsenic paste when the box of skins to be despatched by Hamish reached London; and he was discussing what sort of mounting should be put on a strange old bottle that Janet Macleod had presented to the departing guest. There was no word of that which lay nearest his heart.
And so the black waves rolled by them; and the light at the horizon began to fade; and the stars were coming out one by one; while the two sailors forward (for Macleod was steering) were singing to themselves:
"Fhir a bhata (na horo eile) Fhir a bhata (na horo eile) Fhir a bhata (na horo eile) Chead soire slann leid ge thobh a theid u!"
that is to say,
"O Boatman, And Boatman, And Boatman, A hundred farewells to you wherever you may go!"
And then the lugsail was hauled down, and they lay on the lapping water; and they could hear all around them the soft callings of the guillemots and razor-bills, and other divers whose home is the heaving wave. And then the great steamer came up and slowed; and the boat was hauled alongside and young Ogilvie sprang up the slippery steps.
"Good-bye, Ogilvie! Come up at Christmas."
The great bulk of the steamer soon floated away, and the lugsail was run up again, and the boat made slowly back for Castle Dare. "Fhir a bhata!" the men sung; but Macleod scarcely heard them. His last tie with the South had been broken.
But not quite. It was about ten o'clock that night that word came to Castle Dare that Dugald the Post had met with an accident that morning while starting from Bunessan; and that his place had been taken by a young lad who had but now arrived with the bag. Macleod hastily looked over the bundle of newspapers, etc., they brought him and his eager eyes fell on an envelope, the writing on which made his heart jump.
"Give the lad a half-crown," said he.
And then he went to his own room. He had the letter in his hand; and he knew the handwriting: but there was no wind of the night that could bring him the mystic message she had sent with it:
"Oh, here is, Glenogie, a letter for thee!"
For a second or two he held the letter in his hand, regarding the outside of it; and it was with more deliberation than haste that he opened it. Perhaps it was with some little tremor of fear—lest the first words that should meet his eye might be cruelly cold and distant. What right had he to expect anything else? Many a time, in thinking carefully over the past, he had recalled the words—the very tone—in which he had addressed her, and had been dismayed to think of their reserve, which had on one or two occasions almost amounted to austerity. He could expect little beyond a formal acknowledgment of the receiving of his letter, and the present that had accompanied it.
Imagine, then, his surprise when he took out from the envelope a number of sheets closely written over in her beautiful, small, neat hand. Hastily his eye ran over the first few lines; and then surprise gave way to a singular feeling of gratitude and joy. Was it indeed she who was writing to him thus? When he had been thinking of her as some one far away and unapproachable—who could have no thought of him or of the too brief time in which he had been near to her—had she indeed been treasuring up some recollection that she now seemed disposed to value?
"You will guess that I am woman enough," she wrote, "to be greatly pleased and flattered by your sending me such a beautiful present; but you must believe me when I say that its chief value to me was its showing me that I had another friend in the world who was not disposed to forget me the next day after bidding me good-bye. Perhaps you will say that I am cynical; but actresses are accustomed to find the friendships they make—outside the sphere of their own profession—of a singularly temporary character. We are praised and flattered to-day, and forgotten to-morrow. I don't complain. It is only natural. People go away to their own families and home occupations; why should they remember a person who has amused them for an hour?"
Miss Gertrude White could, when she chose, write a clever and interesting letter—interesting from its very simplicity and frankness; and as Macleod read on and on, he ceased to feel any wonder that this young lady should be placing before him such ample revelations of her experiences and opinions. Indeed, it was more than suggested in this confidential chat that Sir Keith Macleod himself had been the first cause of her having carefully studied her own position, and the influence likely to be exerted on her by her present mode of life.
"One meets with the harsher realities of an actress's life," she said, "in the provinces. It is all very fine in London, when all the friends you happen to have are in town, and where there is constant amusement, and pleasant parties, and nice people to meet; and then you have the comforts of your own home around you, and quiet and happy Sundays. But a provincial tour!—the constant travelling, and rehearsals with strange people, and damp lodgings, and miserable hotels, and wet Sundays in smoky towns! Papa is very good and kind, you know; but he is interested in his books, and he goes about all day hunting after curiosities, and one has not a soul to speak to. Then the audiences: I have witnessed one or two scenes lately that would unnerve any one; and of course I have to stand helpless and silent on the stage until the tumult is stilled and the original offenders expelled. Some sailors the other evening amused themselves by clambering down the top gallery to the pit, hanging on to the gas-brackets and the pillars; and one of them managed to reach the orchestra, jump from the drum on to the stage, and then offered me a glass of whiskey from a big black bottle he had in his hand. When I told papa, he laughed, and said I should be proud of my triumph over the man's imagination. But when the people roared with laughter at my discomfiture, I felt as though I would rather be earning my bread by selling watercresses in the street or by stitching in a garret."
Of course the cry of the poor injured soul found a ready echo in his heart. It was monstrous that she should be subjected to such indignities. And then that cruel old pagan of a father—was he not ashamed of himself to see the results of his own cold-blooded theories? Was this the glory of art? Was this the reward of the sacrifice of a life? That a sensitive girl should be publicly insulted by a tipsy maniac, and jeered at by a brutal crowd? Macleod laid down the letter for a minute or two, and the look on his face was not lovely to see.
"You may think it strange that I should write thus to you," she said; "but if I say that it was yourself who first set me thinking about such things? And since I have been thinking about them I have had no human being near me to whom I could speak. You know papa's opinions. Even if my dearest friend, Mrs. Ross, were here, what would she say? She has known me only in London. She thinks it a fine thing to be a popular actress. She sees people ready to pet me, in a way—so long as society is pleased to have a little curiosity about me. But she does not see the other side of the picture. She does not even ask how long all this will last. She never thinks of the cares and troubles and downright hard work. If ever you heard me sing, you will know that I have very little of a voice, and that not worth much; but trifling as it is, you would scarcely believe the care and cultivation I have to spend on it, merely for business purposes. Mrs. Ross, no doubt, sees that it is pleasant enough for a young actress, who is fortunate enough to have won some public favor, to go sailing in a yacht on the Thames, on a summer day, with nice companions around her. She does not see her on a wet day in Newcastle, practising scales for an hour at a stretch, though her throat is half choked with the fog, in a dismal parlor with a piano out of tune, and with the prospect of having to go out through the wet to a rehearsal in a damp and draughty theatre, with escaped gas added to the fog. That is very nice, isn't it?"
It almost seemed to him—so intense and eager was his involuntary sympathy—as though he himself were breathing fog, and gas, and the foul odors of an empty theatre. He went to the window and threw it open, and sat down there. The stars were no longer quivering white on the black surface of the water, for the moon had risen now in the south, and there was a soft glow all shining over the smooth Atlantic. Sharp and white was the light on the stone-walls of Castle Dare, and on the gravelled path, and the rocks and the trees around; but faraway it was a milder radiance that lay over the sea, and touched here and there the shores of Inch Kenneth and Ulva and Colonsay. It was a fair and peaceful night, with no sound of human unrest to break the sleep of the world. Sleep, solemn and profound, dwelt over the lonely islands—over Staffa, with her resounding caves, and Fiadda, with her desolate rocks, and Iona, with her fairy-white sands, and the distant Dutchman, and Coll, and Tiree, all haunted by the wild sea-birds' cry; and a sleep as deep dwelt over the silent hills, far up under the cold light of the skies. Surely, if any poor suffering heart was vexed by the contentions of crowded cities, here, if anywhere in the world, might rest and peace and loving solace be found. He sat dreaming there; he had half forgotten the letter.
He roused himself from his reverie, and returned to the light.
"And yet I would not complain of mere discomfort," she continued, "if that were all. People who have to work for their living must not be too particular. What pains me most of all is the effect that this sort of work is having on myself. You would not believe—and I am almost ashamed to confess—how I am worried by small and mean jealousies and anxieties, and how I am tortured by the expression of opinions which, all the same, I hold in contempt. I reason with myself to no purpose. It ought to be no concern of mine if some girl in a burlesque makes the house roar, by the manner in which she walks up and down the stage smoking a cigar; and yet I feel angry at the audience for applauding such stuff, and I wince when I see her praised in the papers. Oh! these papers! I have been making minute inquiries of late; and I find that the usual way in these towns is to let the young literary aspirant who has just joined the office, or the clever compositor who has been promoted to the sub-editor's room, try his hand first of all at reviewing books, and then turn him on to dramatic and musical criticism! Occasionally a reporter, who has been round the police courts to get notes of the night charges, will drop into the theatre on his way to the office, and 'do a par.,' as they call it. Will you believe it possible that the things written of me by these persons—with their pretentious airs of criticism, and their gross ignorance cropping up at every point—have the power to vex and annoy me most terribly? I laugh at the time, but the phrase rankles in my memory all the same. One learned young man said of me the other day: 'It is really distressing to mark the want of unity in her artistic characterizations when one regards the natural advantages that nature has heaped upon her with no sparing hand.' The natural advantages that nature has heaped upon me! 'And perhaps, also,' he went on to say, 'Miss White would do well to pay some little more attention before venturing on pronouncing the classic names of Greece. Iphigenia herself would not have answered to her name if she had heard it pronounced with the accent on the fourth syllable.'"
Macleod brought his fist down on the table with a bang.
"If I had that fellow," said he, aloud—"if I had that fellow, I should like to spin for a shark off Dubh Artach lighthouse." And here a most unholy vision rose before him of a new sort of sport—a sailing launch going about six knots an hour, a goodly rope at the stern with a huge hook through the gill of the luckless critic, a swivel to make him spin, and then a few smart trips up and down by the side of the lonely Dubh Artach rocks, where Mr. Ewing and his companions occasionally find a few sharks coming up to the surface to stare at them.
"Is it not too ridiculous that such things should vex me—that I should be so absolutely at the mercy of the opinion of people whose judgment I know to be absolutely valueless? I find the same thing all around me. I find a middle-aged man, who knows his work thoroughly, and has seen all the best actors of the past quarter of a century, will go about quite proudly with a scrap of approval from some newspaper, written by a young man who has never travelled beyond the suburbs of his native town, and has seen no acting beyond that of the local company. But there is another sort of critic—the veteran, the man who has worked hard on the paper and worn himself out, and who is turned off from politics, and pensioned by being allowed to display his imbecility in less important matters. Oh dear! what lessons he reads you! The solemnity of them! Don't you know that at the end of the second act the business of Mrs. So-and-So (some actress who died when George IV. was king) was this, that, or the other?—and how dare you, you impertinent minx, fly in the face of well-known stage traditions? I have been introduced lately to a specimen of both classes. I think the young man—he had beautiful long fair hair and a Byronic collar, and was a little nervous—fell in love with me, for he wrote a furious panegyric of me, and sent it next morning with a bouquet, and begged for my photograph. The elderly gentleman, on the other hand, gave me a great deal of good advice; but I subdued even him, for before he went away he spoke in a broken voice, and there were tears in his eyes, which papa said were owing to a variety of causes. It is ludicrous enough, no doubt, but it is also a little bit humiliating. I try to laugh the thing away, whether the opinion expressed about me is solemnly stupid or merely impertinent, but the vexation of it remains; and the chief vexation to me is that I should have so little command of myself, so little respect for myself, as to suffer myself to be vexed. But how can one help it? Public opinion is the very breath and life of a theatre and of every one connected with it; and you come to attach importance to the most foolish expression of opinion in the most obscure print."
"And so, my dear friend, I have had my grumble out—and made my confession too, for I should not like to let every one know how foolish I am about those petty vexations—and you will see that I have not forgotten what you said to me, and that further reflection and experience have only confirmed it. But I must warn you. Now that I have victimized you to this fearful extent, and liberated my mind, I feel much more comfortable. As I write, there is a blue color coming into the window that tells me the new day is coming. Would it surprise you if the new day brought a complete new set of feelings? I have begun to doubt whether I have got any opinions—whether, having to be so many different people in the course of a week, I have any clear notion as to what I myself am. One thing is certain, that I have been greatly vexed and worried of late by a succession of the merest trifles; and when I got your kind letter and present this evening, I suddenly thought, Now for a complete confession and protest. I know you will forgive me for having victimized you, and that as soon as you have thrown this rambling epistle into the fire you will try to forget all the nonsense it contains and will believe that I hope always to remain your friend,
His quick and warm sympathy refused to believe the half of this letter. It was only because she knew what was owing to the honor and self-respect of a true woman that she spoke in this tone of bitter and scornful depreciation of herself. It was clear that she was longing for the dignity and independence of a more natural way of life. And this revelation—that she was not, after all, banished forever into that cold region of art in which her father would fain keep her—somewhat bewildered him at first. The victim might be reclaimed from the altar and restored to the sphere of simple human affections, natural duties, and joy? And if he—
Suddenly, and with a shock of delight that made his heart throb, he tried to picture this beautiful fair creature sitting over there in that very chair by the side of the fire, her head bent down over her sewing, the warm light of the lamp touching the tender curve of her cheek. And when she lifted her head to speak to him—and when her large and lambent eyes met his—surely Fionaghal, the fair poetess from strange lands, never spoke in softer tones than this other beautiful stranger, who was now his wife and his heart's companion. And now he would bid her lay aside her work, and he would get a white shawl for her, and like a ghost she would steal out with him into the moonlight air. And is there enough wind on this summer night to take them out from the sombre shore to the open plain of the sea? Look now, as the land recedes, at the high walls of Castle Dare, over the black cliffs, and against the stars. Far away they see the graveyard of Inch Kenneth, the stones pale in the moonlight. And what song will she sing now, that Ulva and Colonsay may awake and fancy that some mermaiden is singing to bewail her lost lover? The night is sad, and the song is sad; and then, somehow, he finds himself alone in this waste of water, and all the shores of the islands are silent and devoid of life, and there is only the echo of the sad singing in his ears—
He jumps to his feet, for there is a knocking at the door. The gentle Cousin Janet enters, and hastily he thrusts that letter into his pocket, while his face blushes hotly.
"Where have you been, Keith?" she says, in her quiet, kindly way. "Auntie would like to say good-night to you now."
"I will come directly," said he.
"And now that Norman Ogilvie is away, Keith," said she, "you will take more rest about the shooting; for you have not been looking like yourself at all lately; and you know, Keith, when you are not well and happy, it is no one at all about Dare that is happy either. And that is why you will take care of yourself."
He glanced at her rather uneasily; but he said, in a light and careless way,—
"Oh, I have been well enough, Janet, except that I was not sleeping well one or two nights. And if you look after me like that, you will make me think I am a baby, and you will send me some warm flannels when I go up on the hills."
"It is too proud of your hardihood you are, Keith," said his cousin, with a smile. "But there never was a man of your family who would take any advice."
"I would take any advice from you, Janet," said he; and therewith he followed her to bid good-night to the silver-haired mother.
He slept but little that night, and early the next morning he was up and away by himself—paying but little heed to the rushing blue seas, and the white gulls, and the sunshine touching the far sands on the shores of Iona. He was in a fever of unrest. He knew not what to make of that letter; it might mean anything or nothing. Alternations of wild hope and cold despair succeeded each other. Surely it was unusual for a girl so to reveal her innermost confidences to any one whom she considered a stranger? To him alone had she told this story of her private troubles. Was it not in effect asking for a sympathy which she could not hope for from any other? Was it not establishing a certain secret between them? Her own father did not know. Her sister was too young to be told. Friends like Mrs. Ross could not understand why this young and beautiful actress, the favorite of the public, could be dissatisfied with her lot. It was to him alone she had appealed.
And then again he read the letter. The very frankness of it made him fear. There was none of the shyness of a girl writing to one who might be her lover. She might have written thus to one of her school-companions. He eagerly searched it for some phrase of tenderer meaning; but no there was a careless abandonment about it, as if she had been talking without thinking of the person she addressed. She had even joked about a young man falling in love with her. It was a matter of perfect indifference to her. It was ludicrous as the shape of the lad's collar was ludicrous, but of no more importance. And thus she receded from his imagination again, and became a thing apart—the white slave bound in those cruel chains that seemed to all but herself and him the badges of triumph.
Herself and him—the conjunction set his heart throbbing quickly. He eagerly bethought himself how this secret understanding could be strengthened, if only he might see her and speak to her. He could tell by her eyes what she meant, whatever her words might be. If only he could see her again: all his wild hopes, and fears, and doubts—all his vague fancies and imaginings—began to narrow themselves down to this one point; and this immediate desire became all-consuming. He grew sick at heart when he looked round and considered how vain was the wish.
The gladness had gone from the face of Keith Macleod. Not many months before, any one would have imagined that the life of this handsome young fellow, whose strength, and courage, and high spirits seemed to render him insensible to any obstacle, had everything in it that the mind of man could desire. He had a hundred interests and activities; he had youth and health, and a comely presence; he was on good terms with everybody around him—for he had a smile and a cheerful word for each one he met, gentle or simple. All this gay, glad life seemed to have fled. The watchful Hamish was the first to notice that his master began to take less and less interest in the shooting and boating and fishing; and at times the old man was surprised and disturbed by an exhibition of querulous impatience that had certainly never before been one of Macleod's failings. Then his cousin Janet saw that he was silent and absorbed; and his mother inquired once or twice why he did not ask one or other of his neighbors to come over to Dare to have a day's shooting with him.
"I think you are finding the place lonely, Keith, now that Norman Ogilvie is gone," said she.
"Ah, mother," he said, with a laugh, "it is not Norman Ogilvie, it is London, that has poisoned my mind. I should never have gone to the South. I am hungering for the fleshpots of Egypt already; and I am afraid some day I will have to come and ask you to let me go away again."
He spoke jestingly, and yet he was regarding his mother.
"I know it is not pleasant for a young man to be kept fretting at home," said she. "But it is not long now I will ask you to do that, Keith."
Of course this brief speech only drove him into more vigorous demonstration that he was not fretting at all; and for a time he seemed more engrossed than ever in all the occupations he had but recently abandoned. But whether he was on the hillside, or down in the glen, or out among the islands, or whether he was trying to satisfy the hunger of his heart with books long after every one in Castle Dare had gone to bed, he could not escape from this gnawing and torturing anxiety. It was no beautiful and gentle sentiment that possessed him—a pretty thing to dream about during a summer's morning—but, on the contrary, a burning fever of unrest, that left him peace nor day nor night. "Sudden love is followed by sudden hate," says the Gaelic proverb; but there had been no suddenness at all about this passion that had stealthily got hold of him; and he had ceased even to hope that it might abate or depart altogether. He had to "dree his weird." And when he read in books about the joy and delight that accompany the awakening of love—how the world suddenly becomes fair, and the very skies are bluer than their wont—he wondered whether he was different from other human beings. The joy and delight of love? He knew only a sick hunger of the heart and a continual and brooding despair.
One morning he was going along the cliffs, his only companion being the old black retriever, when suddenly he saw, far away below him, the figure of a lady. For a second his heart stood still at the sight of this stranger; for he knew it was neither the mother nor Janet; and she was coming along a bit of greensward from which, by dint of much climbing, she might have reached Castle Dare. But as he watched her he caught sight of some other figures, farther below on the rocks. And then he perceived—as he saw her return with a handful of bell-heather—that this party had come from Iona, or Bunessan, or some such place, to explore one of the great caves on this coast, while this lady had wandered away from them in search of some wild flowers. By and by he saw the small boat, with its spritsail white in the sun, go away toward the south, and the lonely coast was left as lonely as before.
But ever after that he grew to wonder what Gertrude White, if ever she could be persuaded to visit his home, would think of this thing and of that thing—what flowers she would gather—whether she would listen to Hamish's stories of the fairies—whether she would be interested in her small countryman, Johnny Wickes, who was now in kilts, with his face and legs as brown as a berry—whether the favorable heavens would send her sunlight and blue skies, and the moonlight nights reveal to her the solemn glory of the sea and the lonely islands. Would she take his hand to steady herself in passing over the slippery rocks? What would she say if suddenly she saw above her—by the opening of a cloud—a stag standing high on a crag near the summit of Ben-an-Sloich? And what would the mother and Janet say to that singing of hers, if they were to hear her put all the tenderness of the low, sweet voice into "Wae's me for Prince Charlie?"
There was one secret nook that more than any other he associated with her presence; and thither he would go when this heart-sickness seemed too grievous to be borne. It was down in a glen beyond the fir-wood; and here the ordinary desolation of this bleak coast ceased, for there were plenty of young larches on the sides of the glen, with a tall silver-birch or two; while down in the hollow there were clumps of alders by the side of the brawling stream. And this dell that he sought was hidden away from sight, with the sun but partially breaking through the alders and rowans, and bespeckling the great gray boulders by the side of the burn, many of which were covered by the softest of olive-green moss. Here, too, the brook, that had been broken just above by intercepting stones, swept clearly and limpidly over a bed of smooth rock; and in the golden-brown water the trout lay, and scarcely moved until some motion of his hand made them shoot up stream with a lightning speed. And then the wild flowers around—the purple ling and red bell-heather growing on the silver-gray rocks; a foxglove or two towering high above the golden-green breckans; the red star of a crane's-bill among the velvet moss. Even if she were overawed by the solitariness of the Atlantic and the gloom of the tall cliffs and their yawning caves, surely here would be a haven of peace and rest, with sunshine, and flowers, and the pleasant murmur of the stream. What did it say, then, as one sat and listened in the silence? When the fair poetess from strange lands came among the Macleods, did she seek out this still retreat, and listen, and listen, and listen until she caught the music of this monotonous murmur, and sang it to her harp? And was it not all a song about the passing away of life, and how that summer days were for the young, and how the world was beautiful for lovers? "Oh, children!" it seemed to say, "why should you waste your lives in vain endeavor, while the winter is coming quick, and the black snowstorms, and a roaring of wind from the sea? Here I have flowers for you, and beautiful sunlight, and the peace of summer days. Time passes—time passes—time passes—and you are growing old. While as yet the heart is warm and the eye is bright, here are summer flowers for you, and a silence fit for the mingling of lovers' speech. If you listen not, I laugh at you and go my way. But the winter is coming fast."
Far away in these grimy towns, fighting with mean cares and petty jealousies, dissatisfied, despondent, careless as to the future, how could this message reach her to fill her heart with the singing of a bird? He dared not send it, at all events. But he wrote to her. And the bitter travail of the writing of that letter he long remembered. He was bound to give her his sympathy, and to make light as well as he could of those very evils which he had been the first to reveal to her. He tried to write in as frank and friendly a spirit as she had done; the letter was quite cheerful.
"Did you know," said he, "that once upon a time the chief of the Macleods married a fairy? And whether Macleod did not treat her well, or whether the fairy-folk reclaimed her, or whether she grew tired of the place, I do not know quite; but, at all events, they were separated, and she went away to her own people. But before she went away she gave to Macleod a fairy banner—the Bratach sith it is known as—and she told him that if ever he was in great peril, or had any great desire, he was to wave that flag, and whatever he desired would come to pass. But the virtue of the Bratach sith would depart after it had been waved three times. Now the small green banner has been waved only twice; and now I believe it is still preserved in the Castle of Dunvegan, with power to work one more miracle on behalf of the Macleods. And if I had the fairy flag, do you know what I would do with it? I would take it in my hand, and say: 'I desire the fairy people to remove my friend Gertrude White from all the evil influences that disturb and distress her. I desire them to heal her wounded spirit, and secure for her everything that may tend to her lifelong happiness. And I desire that all the theatres in the kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland—with all their musical instruments, lime-light, and painted scenes—may be taken and dropped into the ocean, midway between the islands of Ulva and Coll, so that the fairy folk may amuse them selves in them if they will so please.' Would not that be a very nice form of incantation? We are very strong believers here in the power of one person to damage another in absence; and when you can kill a man by sticking pins into a waxen image of him—which everybody knows to be true—surely you ought to be able to help a friend, especially with the aid of the Bratach sith. Imagine Covent Garden Theatre a hundred fathoms down in the deep sea, with mermaidens playing the brass instruments in the orchestra, and the fairy-folk on the stage, and seals disporting themselves in the stalls, and guillemots shooting about the upper galleries in pursuit of fish. But we should get no peace from Iona. The fairies there are very pious people. They used to carry St. Columba about when he got tired. They would be sure to demand the shutting up of all the theatres, and the destruction of the brass instruments. And I don't see how we could reasonably object."
It was a cruel sort of jesting; but how otherwise than as a jest could he convey to her, an actress, his wish that all theatres were at the bottom of the sea? For a brief time that letter seemed to establish some link of communication between him and her. He followed it on its travels by sea and land. He thought of its reaching the house in which she dwelt—perhaps some plain and grimy building in a great manufacturing city, or perhaps a small quiet cottage up by Regent's Park half hidden among the golden leaves of October. Might she not, moreover, after she had opened it and read it, be moved by some passing whim to answer it, though it demanded no answer? He waited for a week, and there was no word or message from the South. She was far away, and silent. And the hills grew lonelier than before, and the sickness of his heart increased.
This state of mind could not last. His longing and impatience and unrest became more than he could bear. It was in vain that he tried to satisfy his imaginative craving with these idle visions of her: it was she herself he must see; and he set about devising all manner of wild excuses for one last visit to the South. But the more he considered these various projects, the more ashamed he grew in thinking of his taking any one of them and placing it before the beautiful old dame who reigned in Castle Dare. He had barely been three months at home; how could he explain to her this sudden desire to go away again?
One morning his cousin Janet came to him.
"Oh, Keith!" said she, "the whole house is in commotion; and Hamish is for murdering some of the lads; and there is no one would dare to bring the news to you. The two young buzzards have escaped!"
"I know it," he said. "I let them out myself."
"You!" she exclaimed in surprise; for she knew the great interest he had shown in watching the habits of the young hawks that had been captured by a shepherd lad.
"Yes; I let them out last night. It was a pity to have them caged up."
"So long as it was yourself, it is all right," she said; and then she was going away. But she paused and turned, and said to him, with a smile, "And I think you should let yourself escape, too, Keith, for it is you too that are caged up; and perhaps you feel it now more since you have been to London. And if you are thinking of your friends in London, why should you not go for another visit to the South before you settle down to the long winter?"
For an instant he regarded her with some fear. Had she guessed his secret? Had she been watching the outward signs of this constant torture he had been suffering? Had she surmised that the otter-skins about which he had asked her advice were not consigned to any one of the married ladies whose acquaintance he had made in the South, and of whom he had chatted freely enough in Castle Dare? Or was this merely a passing suggestion thrown out by one who was always on the lookout to do a kindness?
"Well, I would like to go, Janet," he said, but with no gladness in his voice; "and it is not more than a week or two I should like to be away; but I do not think the mother would like it; and it is enough money I have spent this year already—"
"There is no concern about the money, Keith," said she, simply, "since you have not touched what I gave you. And if you are set upon it, you know auntie will agree to whatever you wish."
"But how can I explain to her? It is unreasonable to be going away."
How, indeed, could he explain? He was almost assuming that those gentle eyes now fixed on him could read his heart, and that she would come to aid him in his suffering without any further speech from him. And that was precisely what Janet Macleod did—whether or not she had guessed the cause of his desire to get away.
"If you were a schoolboy, Keith, you would be cleverer at making an excuse for playing truant," she said, laughing. "And I could make one for you now."
"I will not call it an excuse, Keith," she said, "because I think you would be doing a good work; and I will bear the expense of it, if you please."
He looked more puzzled than ever.
"When we were at Salen yesterday I saw Major Stuart, and he has just came back from Dunrobin. And he was saying very great things about the machine for the drying of crops in wet weather, and he said he would like to go to England to see the newer ones and all the later improvements, if these was a chance of any one about here going shares with them. And it would not be very much. Keith, if you were to share with him; and the machine it can be moved about very well; and in the bad weather you could give the cotters some help, to say nothing about our own hay and corn. And that is what Major Stuart was saying yesterday, that if there was any place that you wanted a drying-machine for the crops it was in Mull."
"I have been thinking of it myself," he said, absently, "but our farm is too small to make it pay—"
"But if Major Stuart will take half the expense? And even if you lost a little, Keith, you would save a great deal to the poorer people who are continually losing their little patches of crops. And will you go and be my agent, Keith, to go and see whether it is practicable?"
"They will not thank you, Janet, for letting them have this help for nothing."
"They shall not have it for nothing," said she—for she had plenty of experience in dealing with the poorer folk around—"they must pay for the fuel that is used. And now, Keith, if it is a holiday you want, will not that be a very good holiday, and one to be used for a very good purpose, too?"
She left him. Where was the eager joy with which he ought to have accepted this offer? Here was the very means placed within his reach of satisfying the craving desire of his heart; and yet, all the same, he seemed to shrink back with a vague and undefined dread. A thousand impalpable fears and doubts beset his mind. He had grown timid as a woman. The old happy audacity had been destroyed by sleepless nights and a torturing anxiety. It was a new thing for Keith Macleod to have become a prey to strange unintelligible forebodings.
But he went and saw Major Stuart—a round, red, jolly little man, with white hair and a cheerful smile, who had a sombre and melancholy wife. Major Stuart received Macleod's offer with great gravity. It was a matter of business that demanded serious consideration. He had worked out the whole system of drying crops with hot air as it was shown him in pamphlets, reports, and agricultural journals, and he had come to the conclusion that—on paper at least—it could be made to pay. What was wanted was to give the thing a practical trial. If the system was sound, surely any one who helped to introduce it into the Western Highlands was doing a very good work indeed. And there was nothing but personal inspection could decide on the various merits of latest improvements.
This was what he said before his wife one night at dinner. But when the ladies had left the room, the little stout major suddenly put up both his hands, snapped his thumb and middle finger, and very cleverly executed one or two reel steps.
"By George! my boy," said he, with a ferocious grin on his face, "I think we will have a little frolic—a little frolic!—a little frolic! You were never shut up in a house for six months with a woman like my wife, were you, Macleod? You were never reminded of your coffin every morning, were you? Macleod, my boy, I am just mad to get after those drying-machines!"
And indeed Macleod could not have had a merrier companion to go South with him than this rubicund major just escaped from the thraldom of his wife. But it was with no such high spirits that Macleod set out. Perhaps it was only the want of sleep that had rendered him nerveless and morbid; but he felt, as he left Castle Dare, that there was a lie in his actions, if not in his words. And as for the future that lay before him, it was a region only of doubt, and vague regrets, and unknown fears; and he was entering upon it without any glimpse of light, and without the guidance of any friendly hand.
"AH, pappy," said Miss Gertrude White to her father and she pretended to sigh as she spoke—"this is a change indeed!"
They were driving up to the gate of the small cottage in South Bank. It was the end of October. In the gardens they passed the trees were almost bare; though such leaves as hung sparsely on the branches of the chestnuts and maples were ablaze with russet and gold in the misty sunshine.
"In another week," she continued, "there will not be a leaf left. I dare say there is not a single geranium in the garden. All hands on deck to pipe a farewell:
'Ihr Matten, lebt wohl, Ihr sonnigen Weiden Der Senne muss scheiden, Der Sommer ist hin.'
Farewell to the blue mountains of Newcastle, and the sunlit valleys of Liverpool, and the silver waterfalls of Leeds; the summer is indeed over; and a very nice and pleasant summer we have had of it."
The flavor of sarcasm running through this affected sadness vexed Mr. White, and he answered, sharply,
"I think you have little reason to grumble over a tour which has so distinctly added to your reputation."
"I was not aware," said she, with a certain careless sauciness of manner, "that an actress was allowed to have a reputation; at least, there are always plenty of people anxious enough to take it away."
"Gertrude," said he, sternly, "what do you mean by this constant carping? Do you wish to cease to be an actress? Or what in all the world do you want?"
"To cease to be an actress?" she said, with a mild wonder, and with the sweetest of smiles, as she prepared to get out of the open door of the cab. "Why, don't you know; pappy, that a leopard cannot change his spots, or an Etheopian his skin? Take care of the step, pappy! That's right. Come here, Marie, and give the cabman a hand with this portmanteau."
Miss White was not grumbling at all—but, on the contrary, was quite pleasant and cheerful—when she entered the small house and found herself once more at home.
"Oh, Carry," she said, when her sister followed her into her room; "you don't know what it is to get back home, after having been bandied from one hotel to another hotel, and from one lodging-house to another lodging-house, for goodness knows how long."
"Oh, indeed!" said Miss Carry, with such marked coldness that her sister turned to her.
"What is the matter with you?"
"What is the matter with you?" the younger sister retorted, with sudden fire. "Do you know that your letters to me have been quite disgraceful?"
"You are crazed, child—you wrote something about it the other day—I could not make out what you meant," said Miss White; and she went to the glass to see that the beautiful brown hair had not been too much disarranged by the removal of her bonnet.
"It is you are crazed, Gertrude White," said Carry, who had apparently picked up from some melodrama the notion that it was rather effective to address a person by her full name. "I am really ashamed of you—that you should have let yourself be bewitched by a parcel of beasts' skins. I declare that your ravings about the Highlands, and fairies, and trash of that sort, have been only fit for a penny journal—"
Miss White turned and stared—as well she might. This indignant person of fourteen had flashing eyes and a visage of wrath. The pale, calm, elder sister only remarked, in that deep-toned and gentle voice of hers,
"Your language is pretty considerably strong, Carry. I don't know what has aroused such a passion in you. Because I wrote to you about the Highlands? Because I sent you that collection of legends? Because it seemed to me, when I was in a wretched hotel in some dirty town, I would rather be away yachting or driving with some one of the various parties of people whom I know, and who had mostly gone to Scotland this year? If you are jealous of the Highlands, Carry, I will undertake to root out the name of every mountain and lake that has got hold of my affections."
She was turning away again, with a quiet smile on her face, when her younger sister arrested her.
"What's that?" said she, so sharply, and extending her forefinger so suddenly, that Gertrude almost shrank back.
"What's what?" she said, in dismay—fearing, perhaps, to hear of an adder being on her shoulder.
"You know perfectly well," said Miss Carry, vehemently, "it is the Macleod tartan!"
Now the truth was that Miss White's travelling-dress was of an unrelieved gray; the only scrap of color about her costume being a tiny thread of tartan ribbon that just showed in front of her collar.
"The Macleod tartan?" said the eldest sister, demurely. "And what if it were the Macleod tartan?"
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Gerty! There was quite enough occasion for people to talk in the way he kept coming here; and now you make a parade of it; you ask people to look at you wearing a badge of servitude—you say, 'Oh, here I am; and I am quite ready to be your wife when you ask me, Sir Keith Macleod!'"
There was no flush of anger in the fair and placid face; but rather a look of demure amusement in the downcast eyes.
"Dear me, Carry!" said she, with great innocence, "the profession of an actress must be looking up in public estimation when such a rumor as that could even get into existence. And so people have been so kind as to suggest that Sir Keith Macleod, the representative of one of the oldest and proudest families in the kingdom, would not be above marrying a poor actress who has her living to earn, and who is supported by the half-crowns and half-sovereigns of the public? And indeed I think it would look very well to have him loitering about the stage-doors of provincial theatres until his wife should be ready to come out; and would he bring his gillies, and keepers, and head-foresters, and put them into the pit to applaud her? Really, the role you have cut out for a Highland gentleman—"
"A Highland gentleman!" exclaimed Carry. "A Highland pauper! But you are quite right, Gerty, to laugh at the rumor. Of course it is quite ridiculous. It is quite ridiculous to think that an actress whose fame is all over England—who is sought after by everybody, and the popularest favorite ever seen—would give up everything and go away and marry an ignorant Highland savage, and look after his calves and his cows and hens for him. That is indeed ridiculous, Gerty."
"Very well, then, put it out of your mind; and never let me hear another word about it," said the popularest favorite, as she undid the bit of tartan ribbon; "and if it is any great comfort to you to know, this is not the Macleod tartan but the MacDougal tartan, and you may put it in the fire if you like."
Saying which, she threw the bit of costume which had given so great offence on the table. The discomfited Carry looked at it, but would not touch it. At last she said,
"Where are the skins, Gerty?"
"Near Castle Dare," answered Miss White, turning to get something else for her neck; "there is a steep hill, and the road comes over it. When you climb to the top of the hill and sit down, the fairies will carry you right to the bottom if you are in a proper frame of mind. But they won't appear at all unless you are at peace with all men. I will show you the skins when you are in a proper frame of mind, Carry."
"Who told you that story?" she asked quickly.
"Sir Keith Macleod," the elder sister said, without thinking.
"Then he has been writing to you?"
She marched out of the room. Gertrude White, unconscious of the fierce rage she had aroused, carelessly proceeded with her toilet, trying now one flower and now another in the ripples of her sun-brown hair, but finally discarding these half-withered things for a narrow band of blue velvet.
"Threescore o' nobles rode up the king's ha',"
she was humming thoughtlessly to herself as she stood with her hands uplifted to her head, revealing the beautiful lines of her figure,
"But Bonnie Glenogie's the flower o' them a'; Wi' his milk-white steed and his coal-black e'e: Glenogie, dear mither, Glenogie for me!"
At length she had finished, and was ready to proceed to her immediate work of overhauling domestic affairs. When Keith Macleod was struck by the exceeding neatness and perfection of arrangement in this small house, he was in nowise the victim of any stage-effect. Gertrude White was at all times and in all seasons a precise and accurate house-mistress. Harassed, as an actress must often be, by other cares; sometimes exhausted with hard work; perhaps tempted now and again by the self-satisfaction of a splendid triumph to let meaner concerns go unheeded; all the same, she allowed nothing to interfere with her domestic duties.
"Gerty," her father said, impatiently, to her a day or two before they left London for the provinces, "what is the use of your going down to these stores yourself? Surely you can send Jane or Marie. You really waste far too much time over the veriest trifles: how can it matter what sort of mustard we have?"
"And, indeed, I am glad to have something to convince me that I am a human being and a woman," she had said, instantly, "something to be myself in. I believe Providence intended me to be the manager of a Swiss hotel."
This was one of the first occasions on which she had revealed to her father that she had been thinking a good deal about her lot in life, and was perhaps beginning to doubt whether the struggle to become a great and famous actress was the only thing worth living for. But he paid little attention to it at the time. He had a vague impression that it was scarcely worth discussing about. He was pretty well convinced that his daughter was clever enough to argue herself into any sort of belief about herself, if she should take some fantastic notion into her head. It was not until that night in Manchester that he began to fear there might be something serious in these expressions of discontent.
On this bright October morning Miss Gertrude White was about to begin her domestic inquiries, and was leaving her room humming cheerfully to herself something about the bonnie Glenogie of the song, when she was again stopped by her sister, who was carrying a bundle.
"I have got the skins," she said, gloomily. "Jane took them out."
"Will you look at them?" the sister said, kindly. "They are very pretty. If they were not a present, I would give them to you, to make a jacket of them."
"I wear them?" said she. "Not likely!"
Nevertheless she had sufficient womanly curiosity to let her elder sister open the parcel; and then she took up the otter-skins one by one, and looked at them.
"I don't think much of them," she said.
The other bore this taunt patiently.
"They are only big moles, aren't they? And I thought moleskin was only worn by working-people."
"I am a working-person too," Miss Gertrude White said: "but, in any case, I think a jacket of these skins will look lovely."
"Oh, do you think so? Well, you can't say much for the smell of them."
"It is no more disagreeable than the smell of a sealskin jacket."
She laid down the last of the skins with some air of disdain.
"It will be a nice series of trophies, anyway—showing you know some one who goes about spending his life in killing inoffensive animals."
"Poor Sir Keith Macleod! What has he done to offend you, Carry?"
Miss Carry turned her head away for a minute; but presently she boldly faced her sister.
"Gerty, you don't mean to marry a beauty man!"
Gerty looked considerably puzzled; but her companion continued, vehemently,—
"How often have I heard you say you would never marry a beauty man—a man who has been brought up in front of the looking-glass—who is far too well satisfied with his own good looks to think of anything or anybody else! Again and again you have said that, Gertrude White. You told me, rather than marry a self-satisfied coxcomb, you would marry a misshapen, ugly little man, so that he would worship you all the days of your life for your condescension and kindness."
"Very well, then!"
"And what is Sir Keith Macleod but a beauty man?"
"He is not!" and for once the elder sister betrayed some feeling in the proud tone of her voice. "He is the manliest-looking man that I have ever seen; and I have seen a good many more men than you. There is not a man you know whom he could not throw across the canal down there. Sir Keith Macleod a beauty man!—I think he could take on a good deal more polishing, and curling, and smoothing without any great harm. If I was in any danger, I know which of all the men I have seen I would rather have in front of me—with his arms free; and I don't suppose he would be thinking of any looking-glass! If you want to know about the race he represents, read English history, and the story of England's wars. If you go to India, or China, or Africa, or the Crimea, you will hear something about the Macleods, I think!"
Carry began to cry.
"You silly thing, what is the matter with you?" Gertrude White exclaimed; but of course her arm was round her sister's neck.
"It is true, then."
"What is true?"
"What people say."
"What do people say?"
"That you will marry Sir Keith Macleod."
"Carry!" she said, angrily, "I can't imagine who has been repeating such idiotic stories to you, I wish people would mind their own business. Sir Keith Macleod marry me!"
"Do you mean to say he has never asked you?" Carry said, disengaging herself, and fixing her eyes on her sister's face.
"Certainly not!" was the decided answer; but all the same, Miss Gertrude White's forehead and cheeks flushed slightly.
"Then you know that he means to; and that is why you have been writing to me, day after day, about the romance of the Highlands, and fairy stories, and the pleasure of people who could live without caring for the public. Oh, Gerty, why won't you be frank with me, and let me know the worst at once?"
"If I gave you a box on the ears," she said, laughing, "that would be the worst at once; and I think it would serve you right for listening to such tittle-tattle and letting your head be filled with nonsense. Haven't you sufficient sense to know that you ought not to compel me to speak of such a thing—absurd as it is? I cannot go on denying that I am about to become the wife of Tom, Dick, or Harry; and you know the stories that have been going about for years past. Who was I last? The wife of a Russian nobleman who gambled away all my earnings at Homburg. You are fourteen now, Carry; you should have more sense."
Miss Carry dried her eyes; but she mournfully shook her head. There were the otter-skins lying on the table. She had seen plenty of the absurd paragraphs about her sister which good-natured friends had cut out of provincial and foreign papers and forwarded to the small family at South Bank. But the mythical Russian nobleman had never sent a parcel of otter-skins. These were palpable and not to be explained away. She sorrowfully left the room, unconvinced.
And now Miss Gertrude White set to work with a will; and no one who was only familiar with her outside her own house would have recognized in this shifty, practical, industrious person, who went so thoroughly into all the details of the small establishment, the lady who, when she went abroad among the gayeties of the London season, was so eagerly sought after, and flattered, and petted, and made the object of all manner of delicate attentions. Her father, who suspected that her increased devotion to these domestic duties was but part of that rebellious spirit she had recently betrayed, had nevertheless to confess that there was no one but herself whom he could trust to arrange his china and dust his curiosities. And how could he resent her giving instructions to the cook, when it was his own dinner that profited thereby?
"Well, Gerty," he said that evening after dinner, "what do you think about Mr. ——'s offer? It is very good-natured of him to let you have the ordering of the drawing-room scene, for you can have the furniture and the color to suit your own costume."
"Indeed I shall have nothing whatever to do with it," said she, promptly. "The furniture at home is enough for me. I don't wish to become the upholsterer of a theatre."
"You are very ungrateful, then. Half the effect of a modern comedy is lost because the people appear in rooms which resemble nothing at all that people ever lived in. Here is a man who gives you carte blanche to put a modern drawing-room on the stage; and your part would gain infinitely from having real surroundings. I consider it a very flattering offer."