"And perhaps it is, pappy," said she, "but I think I do enough if I get through my own share of the work. And it is very silly of him to want me to introduce a song into this part, too. He knows I can't sing—"
"Gerty!" her sister said.
"Oh, you know as well as I. I can get through a song well enough in a room; but I have not enough voice for a theatre; and although he says it is only to make the drawing-room scene more realistic—and that I need not sing to the front—that is all nonsense. I know what it is meant for—to catch the gallery. Now I refuse to sing for the gallery."
This was decided enough.
"What was the song you put into your last part, Gerty?" her sister asked. "I saw something in the papers about it."
"It was a Scotch one, Carry; I don't think you know it."
"I wonder it was not a Highland one," her sister said, rather spitefully.
"Oh, I have a whole collection of Highland ones now, would you like to hear one? Would you, pappy?"
She went and fetched the book, and opened the piano.
"It is an old air that belonged to Scarba," she said, and then she sang, simply and pathetically enough, the somewhat stiff and cumbrous English translation of the Gaelic words. It was the song of the exiled Mary Macleod, who, sitting on the shores of "sea-worn Mull," looks abroad on the lonely islands of Scarba, and Islay, and Jura, and laments that she is far away from her own home.
"How do you like it, pappy?" she said, when she had finished. "It is a pity I do not know the Gaelic. They say that when the chief heard these verses repeated, he let the old woman go back to her own home."
One of the two listeners, at all events, did not seem to be particularly struck by the pathos of Mary Macleod's lament. She walked up to the piano.
"Where did you get that book, Gerty?" she said, in a firm voice.
"Where?" said the other, innocently. "In Manchester, I think it was, I bought it."
But before she had made the explanation, Miss Carry, convinced that this, too, had come from her enemy, had seized the book and turned to the title-page. Neither on title-page nor on fly-leaf, however, was there any inscription.
"Did you think it had come with the otter-skins, Carry?" the elder sister said, laughing; and the younger one retired, baffled and chagrined, but none the less resolved that before Gertrude White completely gave herself up to this blind infatuation for a savage country and for one of its worthless inhabitants, she would have to run the gauntlet of many a sharp word of warning and reproach.
IN LONDON AGAIN.
On through the sleeping counties rushed the train—passing woods, streams, fertile valleys, and clustering villages, all palely shrouded in the faint morning mist that had a sort of suffused and hidden sunlight in it; the world had not yet awoke. But Macleod knew that, ere he reached London people would be abroad; and he almost shrank from meeting the look of those thousands of eager faces. Would not some of them guess his errand? Would he not be sure to run against a friend of hers—an acquaintance of his own? It was with a strange sense of fear that he stepped out and on to the platform at Euston Station; he glanced up and down; if she were suddenly to confront his eyes! A day or two ago it seemed as if innumerable leagues of ocean lay between him and her, so that the heart grew sick with thinking of the distance; now that he was in the same town with her, he felt so close to her that he could almost hear her breathe.
Major Stuart has enjoyed a sound night's rest, and was now possessed of quite enough good spirits and loquacity for two. He scarcely observed the silence of his companion. Together they rattled away through this busy, eager, immense throng, until they got down to the comparative quiet of Bury Street; and here they were fortunate enough to find not only that Macleod's old rooms were unoccupied, but that his companion could have the corresponding chambers on the floor above. They changed their attire; had breakfast; and then proceeded to discuss their plans for the day. Major Stuart observed that he was in no hurry to investigate the last modifications of the drying-machines. It would be necessary to write and appoint an interview before going down into Essex. He had several calls to make in London; if Macleod did not see him before, they should meet at seven for dinner. Macleod saw him depart without any great regret.
When he himself went outside it was already noon, but the sun had not yet broken through the mist, and London seemed cold, and lifeless, and deserted. He did not know of any one of his former friends being left in the great and lonely city. He walked along Piccadilly, and saw how many of the houses were shut up. The beautiful foliage of the Green Park had vanished; and here and there a red leaf hung on a withered branch. And yet, lonely as he felt in walking through this crowd of strangers, he was nevertheless possessed with a nervous and excited fear that at any moment he might have to quail before the inquiring glance of a certain pair of calm, large eyes. Was this, then, really Keith Macleod who was haunted by these fantastic troubles? Had he so little courage that he dared not go boldly up to her house and hold out his hand to her? As he walked along this thoroughfare, he was looking far ahead; and when any tall and slender figure appeared that might by any possibility be taken for hers, he watched it with a nervous interest that had something of dread in it. So much for the high courage born of love!
It was with some sense of relief that he entered Hyde Park, for here there were fewer people. And as he walked on, the day brightened. A warmer light began to suffuse the pale mist lying over the black-green masses of rhododendrons, the leafless trees, the damp grassplots, the empty chairs; and as he was regarding a group of people on horseback who, almost at the summit of the red hill, seemed about to disappear into the mist, behold! a sudden break in the sky; a silvery gleam shot athwart from the south, so that these distant figures grew almost black; and presently the frail sunshine of November was streaming all over the red ride and the raw green of the grass. His spirits rose somewhat. When he reached the Serpentine, the sunlight was shining on the rippling blue water; and there were pert young ladies of ten or twelve feeding the ducks; and away on the other side there was actually an island amidst the blue ripples; and the island, if it was not as grand as Staffa nor as green as Ulva, was nevertheless an island, and it was pleasant enough to look at, with its bushes, and boats, and white swans. And then he bethought him of his first walks by the side of this little lake—when Oscar was the only creature in London he had to concern himself with—when each new day was only a brighter holiday than its predecessor—when he was of opinion that London was the happiest and most beautiful place in the world; and of that bright morning, too, when he walked through the empty streets at dawn, and came to the peacefully flowing river.
These idle meditations were suddenly interrupted. Away along the bank of the lake his keen eye could make out a figure, which, even at that distance, seemed so much to resemble one he knew, that his heart began to beat quick. Then the dress—all of black, with a white hat and white gloves; was not that of the simplicity that had always so great an attraction for her? And he knew that she was singularly fond of Kensington Gardens; and might she not be going thither for a stroll before going back to the Piccadilly Theater? He hastened his steps. He soon began to gain on the stranger; and the nearer he got the more it seemed to him that he recognized the graceful walk and carriage of this slender woman. She passed under the archway of the bridge. When she had emerged from the shadow, she paused for a moment or two to look at the ducks on the lake; and this arch of shadow seemed to frame a beautiful sunlit picture—the single figure against a background of green bushes. And if this were indeed she, how splendid the world would all become in a moment! In his eagerness of anticipation he forgot his fear. What would she say? Was he to hear her laugh once more, and take her hand? Alas! When he got close enough to make sure, he found that his beautiful figure belonged to a somewhat pretty, middle-aged lady, who had brought a bag of scraps with her to feed the ducks. The world grew empty again. He passed on, in a sort of dream. He only knew he was in Kensington Gardens; and that once or twice he had walked with her down those broad alleys in the happy summer-time of flowers, and sunshine, and the scent of limes. Now there was a pale blue mist in the open glades; and a gloomy purple instead of the brilliant green of the trees; and the cold wind that came across rustled the masses of brown orange leaves that were lying scattered on the ground. He got a little more interested when he neared the Round Pond; for the wind had freshened; and there were several handsome craft out there on the raging deep, braving well the sudden squalls that laid them right on their beam-ends, and then let them come staggering and dripping up to windward. But there were two small boys there who had brought with them a tiny vessel of home-made build, with a couple of lugsails, a jib, and no rudder; and it was a great disappointment to them that this nondescript craft would move, if it moved at all, in an uncertain circle. Macleod came to their assistance—got a bit of floating stick, and carved out of it a rude rudder, altered the sails, and altogether put the ship into such sea-going trim that, when she was fairly launched, she kept a pretty good course for the other side, where doubtless she arrived in safety, and discharged her passengers and cargo. He was almost sorry to part with the two small ship-owners. They almost seemed to him the only people he knew in London.
But surely he had not come all the way from Castle Dare to walk about Kensington Gardens! What had become of that intense longing to see her—to hear her speak—that had made his life at home a constant torment and misery? Well, it still held possession of him; but all the same there was this indefinable dread that held him back. Perhaps he was afraid that he would have to confess to her the true reason for his having come to London. Perhaps he feared he might find her something entirely different from the creature of his dreams. At all events as he returned to his room and sat down by himself to think over all the things that might accrue from this step of his, he only got farther and farther into a haze of nervous indecision. One thing only was clear to him: with all his hatred and jealousy of the theatre, to the theatre that night he would have to go. He could not know that she was so near to him—that at a certain time and place he would certainly see her and listen to her—without going. He bethought him, moreover, of what he had once heard her say—that while she could fairly well make out the people in the galleries and boxes, those who were sitting in the stalls close to the orchestra were, by reason of the glare of the foot-lights, quite invisible to her. Might he not, then, get into some corner where, himself unseen, he might be so near to her that he could almost stretch out his hand to her and take her hand, and tell, by its warmth and throbbing, that it was a real woman, and not a dream, that filled his heart?
Major Stuart was put off by some excuse, and at eight o'clock Macleod walked up to the theatre. He drew near with some apprehension; it almost seemed to him as though the man in the box-office recognized him, and knew the reason for his demanding one of those stalls. He got it easily enough; there was no great run on the new piece, even though Miss Gertrude White was the heroine. He made his way along the narrow corridors; he passed into the glare of the house; he took his seat with his ears dinned by the loud music, and waited. He paid no heed to his neighbors; he had already twisted up the programme so that he could not have read it if he had wished; he was aware mostly of a sort of slightly choking sensation about the throat.
When Gertrude White did appear—she came in unexpectedly—he almost uttered a cry: and it would have been a cry of delight. For there was a flesh and blood woman, a thousand times more interesting, and beautiful, and lovable than all his fancied pictures of her. Look how she walks—how simply and gracefully she takes off her hat and places it on the table! Look at the play of light, and life, and gladness on her face—at the eloquence of her eyes! He had been thinking of her eyes as too calmly observant and serious: he saw them now, and was amazed at the difference—they seemed to have so much clear light in them, and pleasant laughter. He did not fear at all that she should see him. She was so near—he wished he could take her hand and lead her away. What concern had these people around with her? This was Gertrude White—whom he knew. She was a friend of Mrs. Ross's; she lived in a quiet little home, with an affectionate and provoking sister; she had a great admiration for Oscar the collie; she had the whitest hand in the world as she offered you some salad at the small, neat table. What was she doing here—amidst all this glaring sham—before all these people? "Come away quickly!" his heart cried to her. "Quick—quick—let us get away together: there is some mistake—some illusion: outside you will breathe the fresh air, and get into the reality of the world again; and you will ask about Oscar, and young Ogilvie: and one might hold your hand—your real warm hand—and perhaps hold it tight, and not give it up to any one whatsoever!" His own hand was trembling with excitement. The eagerness of delight with which he listened to every word uttered by the low-toned and gentle voice was almost painful; and yet he knew it not. He was as one demented. This was Gertrude White—speaking, walking, smiling, a fire of beauty in her clear eyes; her parted lips when she laughed letting the brilliant light just touch for an instant the milk-white teeth. This was no pale Rose Leaf at all—no dream or vision—but the actual laughing, talking, beautiful woman, who had more than ever of that strange grace and witchery about her that had fascinated him when first he saw her. She was so near that he could have thrown a rose to her—a red rose, full blown and full scented. He forgave the theatre—or rather he forgot it—in the unimaginable delight of being so near her. And when at length she left the stage, he had no jealousy of the poor people who remained there to go through their marionette business. He hoped they might all become great actors and actresses. He even thought he would try to get to understand the story—seeing he should have nothing else to do until Gertrude White came back again.
Now Keith Macleod was no more ignorant or innocent than anybody else; but there was one social misdemeanor—mere peccadillo, let us say—that was quite unintelligible to him. He could not understand how a man could go flirting after a married woman; and still less could he understand how a married woman should, instead of attending to her children and her house and such matters, make herself ridiculous by aping girlhood and pretending to have a lover. He had read a great deal about this, and he was told it was common; but he did not believe it. The same authorities assured him that the women of England were drunkards in secret; he did not believe it. The same authorities insisted that the sole notion of marriage that occupied the head of an English girl of our own day was as to how she should sell her charms to the highest bidder; he did not believe that either. And indeed he argued with himself, in considering to what extent books and plays could be trusted in such matters, that in one obvious case the absurdity of these allegations was proved. If France were the France of French playwrights and novelists, the whole business of the country would come to a standstill. If it was the sole and constant occupation of every adult Frenchman to run after his neighbor's wife, how could bridges be built, taxes collected, fortifications planned? Surely a Frenchman must sometimes think, if only by accident, of something other than his neighbor's wife? Macleod laughed to himself in the solitude of Castle Dare, and contemptuously flung the unfinished paper-covered novel aside.
But what was his surprise and indignation—his shame, even—on finding that this very piece in which Gertrude White was acting was all about a jealous husband, and a gay and thoughtless wife, and a villain who did not at all silently plot her ruin, but frankly confided his aspirations to a mutual friend, and rather sought for sympathy; while she, Gertrude White herself, had, before all these people, to listen to advances which, in her innocence, she was not supposed to understand. As the play proceeded, his brows grew darker and darker. And the husband, who ought to have been the guardian of his wife's honor? Well, the husband in this rather poor play was a creation that is common in modern English drama. He represented one idea at least that the English playwright has certainly not borrowed from the French stage. Moral worth is best indicated by a sullen demeanor. The man who has a pleasant manner is dangerous and a profligate; the virtuous man—the true-hearted Englishman—conducts himself as a boor, and proves the goodness of his nature by his silence and his sulks. The hero of this trumpery piece was of this familiar type. He saw the gay fascinator coming about his house; but he was too proud and dignified to interfere. He knew of his young wife becoming the byword of his friends; but he only clasped his hands on his forehead, and sought solitude, and scowled as a man of virtue should. Macleod had paid but little attention to stories of this kind when he had merely read them; but when the situation was visible—when actual people were before him—the whole thing looked more real, and his sympathies became active enough. How was it possible, he thought, for this poor dolt to fume and mutter, and let his innocent wife go her own way alone and unprotected, when there was a door in the room, and a window by way of alternative? There was one scene in which the faithless friend and the young wife were together in her drawing-room. He drew nearer to her; he spake softly to her; he ventured to take her hand. And while he was looking up appealingly to her, Macleod was regarding his face. He was calculating to himself the precise spot between the eyes where a man's knuckles would most effectually tell; and his hand was clinched, and his teeth set hard. There was a look on his face which would have warned any gay young man that when Macleod should marry, his wife would need no second champion.
But was this the atmosphere by which she was surrounded? It is needless to say that the piece was proper enough. Virtue was triumphant; vice compelled to sneak off discomfited. The indignant outburst of shame, and horror, and contempt on the part of the young wife, when she came to know what the villain's suave intentions really meant, gave Miss White an excellent opportunity of displaying her histrionic gifts; and the public applauded vehemently; but Macleod had no pride in her triumph. He was glad when the piece ended—when the honest-hearted Englishman so far recovered speech as to declare that his confidence in his wife was restored, and so far forgot his stolidity of face and demeanor as to point out to the villain the way to the door instead of kicking him thither. Macleod breathed more freely when he knew that Gertrude White was now about to go away to the shelter and quiet of her own home. He went back to his rooms, and tried to forget the precise circumstances in which he had just seen her.
But not to forget herself. A new gladness filled his heart when he thought of her—thought of her not now as a dream or a vision, but as the living and breathing woman whose musical laugh seemed still to be ringing in his ears. He could see her plainly—the face all charged with life and loveliness; the clear bright eyes that he had no longer any fear of meeting; the sweet mouth with its changing smiles. When Major Stuart came home that night he noticed a most marked change in the manner of his companion. Macleod was excited, eager, talkative; full of high spirits and friendliness; he joked his friend about his playing truant from his wife. He was anxious to know all about the major's adventures, and pressed him to have but one other cigar, and vowed that he would take him on the following evening to the only place in London where a good dinner could be had. There was gladness in his eyes, a careless satisfaction in his manner; he was ready to do anything, go anywhere. This was more like the Macleod of old. Major Stuart came to the conclusion that the atmosphere of London had had a very good effect on his friend's spirits.
When Macleod went to bed that night there were wild and glad desires and resolves in his brain that might otherwise have kept him awake but for the fatigue he had lately endured. He slept, and he dreamed; and the figure that he saw in his dreams—though she was distant, somehow—had a look of tenderness in her eyes, and she held a red rose in her hand.
November though it was, next morning broke brilliantly over London. There was a fresh west wind blowing; there was a clear sunshine filling the thoroughfares; if one were on the lookout for picturesqueness even in Bury Street, was there not a fine touch of color where the softly red chimney-pots rose far away into the blue? It was not possible to have always around one the splendor of the northern sea.
And Macleod would not listen to a word his friend had to say concerning the important business that had brought them both to London.
"To-night, man—to-night—we will arrange it all to-night," he would say, and there was a nervous excitement about his manner for which the major could not at all account.
"Sha'n't I see you till the evening, then?" he asked.
"No," Macleod said, looking anxiously out of the window, as if he feared some thunder-storm would suddenly shut out the clear light of this beautiful morning. "I don't know—perhaps I may be back before—but at any rate we meet at seven. You will remember—seven?"
"Indeed I am not likely to forget it," his companion said, for he had been told about five-and-thirty times.
It was about eleven o'clock when Macleod left the house. There was a grateful freshness about the morning even here in the middle of London. People looked cheerful; Piccadilly was thronged with idlers come out to enjoy the sunshine; there was still a leaf or two fluttering on the trees in the square. Why should this man go eagerly tearing away northward in a hansom—with an anxious and absorbed look on his face—when everybody seemed inclined to saunter leisurely along, breathing the sweet wind, and feeling the sunlight on their cheek?
It was scarcely half-past eleven when Macleod got out of the hansom, and opened a small gate, and walked up to the door of a certain house. He was afraid she had already gone. He was afraid she might resent his calling at so unusual an hour. He was afraid—of a thousand things. And when at last the trim maid-servant told him that Miss White was within, and asked him to step into the drawing-room, it was almost as one in a dream that he followed her. As one in a dream, truly; but nevertheless he saw every object around him with a marvellous vividness. Next day he could recollect every feature of the room—the empty fireplace, the black-framed mirror, the Chinese fans, the small cabinets with their shelves of blue and white, and the large open book on the table, with a bit of tartan lying on it. These things seemed to impress themselves on his eyesight involuntarily; for he was in reality intently listening for a soft footfall outside the door. He went forward to this open book. It was a volume of a work on the Highland clans—a large and expensive work that was not likely to belong to Mr. White. And this colored figure? It was the representative of the clan Macleod: and this bit of cloth that lay on the open book was of the Macleod tartan. He withdrew quickly, as though he had stumbled on some dire secret. He went to the window. He saw only leafless trees now, and withered flowers; with the clear sunshine touching the sides of houses and walls that had in the summer months been quite invisible.
There was a slight noise behind him; he turned, and all the room seemed filled with a splendor of light and of life as she advanced to him—the clear, beautiful eyes full of gladness, the lips smiling, the hand frankly extended. And of a sudden his heart sank. Was it indeed of her,
"The glory of life, the beauty of the world,"
that he had dared to dream wild and impossible dreams? He had set out that morning with a certain masterful sense that he would face his fate. He had "taken the world for his pillow," as the Gaelic stories say. But at this sudden revelation of the incomparable grace, and self-possession, and high loveliness of this beautiful creature, all his courage and hopes fled instantly, and he could only stammer out excuses for his calling so early. He was eagerly trying to make himself out an ordinary visitor. He explained that he did not know but that she might be going to the theatre during the day. He was in London for a short time on business. It was an unconscionable hour.
"But I am so glad to see you!" she said, with a perfect sweetness, and her eyes said more than her words. "I should have been really vexed if I had heard you had passed through London without calling on us. Won't you sit down?"
As he sat down, she turned for a second, and without any embarrassment shut the big book that had been lying open on the table.
"It is very beautiful weather," she remarked—there was no tremor about her fingers, at all events, as she made secure the brooch that fastened the simple morning-dress at the neck, "only it seems a pity to throw away such beautiful sunshine on withered gardens and bare trees. We have some fine chrysanthemums, though; but I confess I don't like chrysanthemums myself. They come at a wrong time. They look unnatural. They only remind one of what is gone. If we are to have winter, we ought to have it out and out. The chrysanthemums always seem to me as if they were making a pretence—trying to make you believe that there was still some life left in the dead garden."
It was very pretty talk, all this about chrysanthemums, uttered in the low-toned, and gentle, and musical voice; but somehow there was a burning impatience in his heart, and a bitter sense of hopelessness, and he felt as though he would cry out in his despair. How could he sit there and listen to talk about chrysanthemums? His hands were tightly clasped together; his heart was throbbing quickly; there was a humming in his ears, as though something there refused to hear about chrysanthemums.
"I—I saw you at the theatre last night," said he.
Perhaps it was the abruptness of the remark that caused the quick blush. She lowered her eyes. But all the same she said, with perfect self-possession,—
"Did you like the piece?"
And he, too: was he not determined to play the part of an ordinary visitor?
"I am not much of a judge," said he, lightly. "The drawing-room scene is very pretty. It is very like a drawing-room. I suppose those are real curtains, and real pictures?"
"Oh yes, it is all real furniture," said she.
Thereafter, for a second, blank silence. Neither dared to touch that deeper stage question that lay next their hearts. But when Keith Macleod, in many a word of timid suggestion, and in the jesting letter he sent her from Castle Dare, had ventured upon that dangerous ground, it was not to talk about the real furniture of a stage drawing-room. However, was not this an ordinary morning call? His manner—his speech—everything said so but the tightly-clasped hands, and perhaps too a certain intensity of look in the eyes, which seemed anxious and constrained.
"Papa, at least, is proud of our chrysanthemums," said Miss White, quickly getting away from the stage question. "He is in the garden now. Will you go out and see him? I am sorry Carry has gone to school."
She rose. He rose also, and he was about to lift his hat from the table, when he suddenly turned to her.
"A drowning man will cry out; how can you prevent his crying out?"
She was startled by the change in the sound of his voice, and still more by the almost haggard look of pain and entreaty in his eyes. He seized her hand; she would have withdrawn it, but she could not.
"You will listen. It is no harm to you. I must speak now, or I will die," said he, quite wildly; "and if you think I am mad, perhaps you are right, but people have pity for a madman. Do you know why I have come to London? It is to see you. I could bear it no longer—the fire that was burning and killing me. Oh, it is no use my saying that it is love for you—I do not know what it is—but only that I must tell you, and you cannot be angry with me—you can only pity me and go away. That is it—it is nothing to you—you can go away."
She burst into tears, and snatched her hand from him, and with both hands covered her face.
"Ah!" said he, "is it pain to you that I should tell you of this madness? But you will forgive me—and you will forget it—and it will not pain you to-morrow or any other day. Surely you are not to blame! Do you remember the days when we became friends? it seems a long time ago, but they were beautiful days, and you were very kind to me, and I was glad I had come to London to make so kind a friend. And it was no fault of yours that I went away with that sickness of the heart; and how could you know about the burning fire, and the feeling that if I did not see you I might as well be dead? And I will call you Gertrude for once only. Gertrude, sit down now—for a moment or two—and do not grieve any more over what is only a misfortune. I want to tell you. After I have spoken, I will go away, and there will be an end of the trouble."
She did sit down; her hands were clasped in piteous despair; he saw the tear drops on the long, beautiful lashes.
"And if the drowning man cries?" said he. "It is only a breath. The waves go over him, and the world is at peace. And oh! do you know that I have taken a strange fancy of late—But I will not trouble you with that; you may hear of it afterward; you will understand, and know you have no blame, and there is an end of trouble. It is quite strange what fancies get into one's head when one is—sick—heart-sick. Do you know what I thought this morning? Will you believe it? Will you let the drowning man cry out in his madness? Why, I said to myself, 'Up now, and have courage! Up now, and be brave, and win a bride as they used to do in the old stories.' And it was you—it was you—my madness thought of. 'You will tell her,' I said to myself, 'of all the love and the worship you have for her, and your thinking of her by day and by night; and she is a woman, and she will have pity. And then in her surprise—why—' But then you came into the room—it is only a little while ago—but it seems for ever and ever away now—and I have only pained you—"
She sprang to her feet; her face white, her lips proud and determined. And for a second she put her hands on his shoulders; and the wet, full, piteous eyes met his. But as rapidly she withdrew them—almost shuddering—and turned, away; and her hands were apart, each clasped, and she bowed her head. Gertrude White had never acted like that on any stage.
And as for him, he stood absolutely dazed for a moment, not daring to think what that involuntary action might mean. He stepped forward, with a pale face and a bewildered air, and caught her hand. Her face she sheltered with the other, and she was sobbing bitterly.
"Gertrude," he said, "what is it? What do you mean?"
The broken voice answered, though her face was turned aside,—
"It is I who am miserable."
"You who are miserable?"
She turned and looked fair into his face, with her eyes all wet, and beautiful, and piteous.
"Can't you see? Don't you understand?" she said "Oh, my good friend! of all the men in the world, you are the very last I would bring trouble to. And I cannot be a hypocrite with you. I feared something of this; and now the misery is that I cannot say to you, 'Here, take my hand. It is yours. You have won your bride.' I cannot do it. If we were both differently situated, it might be otherwise—"
"It might be otherwise!" he exclaimed, with a sudden wonder. "Gertrude, what do you mean? Situated? Is it only that? Look me in the face, now, and as you are a true woman tell me—if we were both free from all situation—if there were no difficulties—nothing to be thought of—could you give yourself to me? Would you really become my wife—you who have all the world flattering you?"
She dared not look him in the face. There was something about the vehemence of his manner that almost terrified her. But she answered bravely, in the sweet, low, trembling voice, and with downcast eyes,—
"If I were to become the wife of any one, it is your wife I would like to be; and I have thought of it. Oh, I cannot be a hypocrite with you when I see the misery I have brought you! And I have thought of giving up all my present life, and all the wishes and dreams I have cherished, and going away and living the simple life of a woman. And under whose guidance would I try that rather than yours? You made me think. But it is all a dream—a fancy. It is impossible. It would only bring misery to you and to me—"
"But why—but why?" he eagerly exclaimed; and there was a new light in his face. "Gertrude, if you can say so much, why not say all? What are obstacles? There can be none if you have the fiftieth part of the love for me that I have for you! Obstacles!" And he laughed with a strange laugh.
She looked up in his face.
"And would it be so great a happiness for you? That would make up for all the trouble I have brought you?" she said, wistfully; and his answer was to take both her hands in his, and there was such a joy in his heart that he could not speak at all. But she only shook her head somewhat sadly, and withdrew her hands, and sat down again by the table.
"It is wrong of me even to think of it," she said. "Today I might say 'yes,' and to-morrow? You might inspire me with courage now; and afterward—I should only bring you further pain. I do not know myself. I could not be sure of myself. How could I dare drag you into such a terrible risk? It is better as it is. The pain you are suffering will go. You will come to call me your friend; and you will thank me that I refused. Perhaps I shall suffer a little too," she added, and once more she rather timidly looked up into his face. "You do not know the fascination of seeing your scheme of life, that you have been dreaming about, just suddenly put before you for acceptance; and you want all your common sense to hold back. But I know it will be better—better for both of us. You must believe me."
"I do not believe you, and I will not believe you," said he, with a proud light in his eyes; "and now you have said so much I am not going to take any refusal at all. Not now. Gertrude, I have courage for both of us: when you are timid, you will take my hand. Say it, then! A word only! You have already said all but that!"
He seemed scarcely the same man who had appealed to her with the wild eyes and the haggard face. His look was radiant and proud. He spoke with a firm voice; and yet there was a great tenderness in his tone.
"I am sure you love me," she said, in a low voice.
"You will see," he rejoined, with a firm confidence.
"And I am not going to requite your love ill. You are too vehement. You think of nothing but the one end to it all. But I am a woman, and women are taught to be patient. Now you must let me think about all you have said."
"And you do not quite refuse?" said he.
She hesitated for a moment or two.
"I must think for you as well as for myself," she said, in a scarcely audible voice. "Give me time. Give me till the end of the week."
"At this hour I will come."
"And you will believe I have decided for the best—that I have tried hard to be fair to you as well as myself?"
"I know you are too true a woman for anything else," he said; and then he added, "Ah, well, now, you have had enough misery for one morning; you must dry your eyes now, and we will go out into the garden; and if I am not to say anything of all my gratitude to you—why? Because I hope there will be many a year to do that in, my angel of goodness!"
She went to fetch a light shawl and a hat; he kept turning over the things on the table, his fingers trembling, his eyes seeing nothing. If they did see anything, it was a vision of the brown moors near Castle Dare, and a beautiful creature, clad all in cream-color and scarlet, drawing near the great gray stone house.
She came into the room again; joy leaped to his eyes.
"Will you follow me?"
There was a strangely subdued air about her manner as she led him to where her father was; perhaps she was rather tired after the varied emotions she had experienced; perhaps she was still anxious. He was not anxious. It was in a glad way that he addressed the old gentleman who stood there with a spade in his hand.
"It is indeed a beautiful garden," Macleod said, looking round on the withered leaves and damp soil; "no wonder you look after it yourself."
"I am not gardening," the old man said, peevishly. "I have been putting a knife in the ground—burying the hatchet, you might call it. Fancy! A man sees an old hunting-knife in a shop at Gloucester—a hunting-knife of the time of Charles I., with a beautifully carved ivory handle; and he thinks he will make a present of it to me. What does he do but go and have it ground, and sharpened, and polished until if looks like something sent from Sheffield the day before yesterday!"
"You ought to be very pleased, pappy, you got it at all," said Gertrude White; but she was looking elsewhere, and rather absently too.
"And so you have buried it to restore the tone?"
"I have," said the old gentleman, marching off with the shovel to a sort of out house.
Macleod speedily took his leave.
"Saturday next at noon," said he to her, with no timidity in his voice.
"Yes," said she, more gently, and with downcast eyes.
He walked away from the house—he knew not whither. He saw nothing around him. He walked hard, sometimes talking to himself. In the afternoon he found himself in a village in Berkshire, close by which, fortunately, there was a railway station; and he had just time to get back to keep his appointment with Major Stuart.
They sat down to dinner.
"Come, now, Macleod, tell me where you have been all day," said the rosy-faced soldier, carefully tucking his napkin under his chin.
Macleod burst out laughing.
"Another day—another day, Stuart, I will tell you all about it. It is the most ridiculous story you ever heard in your life!"
It was a strange sort of laughing, for there were tears in the younger man's eyes. But Major Stuart was too busy to notice; and presently they began to talk about the real and serious object of their expedition to London.
A RED ROSE.
From nervous and unreasoning dread to overweening and extravagant confidence there was but a single bound. After the timid confession she had made, how could he have any further fear? He knew now the answer she must certainly give him. What but the one word "yes"—musical as the sound of summer seas—could fitly close and atone for all that long period of doubt and despair? And would she murmur it with the low, sweet voice, or only look it with the clear and lambent eyes? Once uttered, anyhow, surely the glad message would instantly wing its flight away to the far North; and Colonsay would hear; and the green shores of Ulva would laugh; and through all the wild dashing and roaring of the seas there would be a soft ringing as of wedding-bells. The Gometra men will have a good glass that night; and who will take the news to distant Fladda and rouse the lonely Dutchman from his winter sleep? There is a bride coming to Castle Dare!
When Norman Ogilvie had even mentioned marriage, Macleod had merely shaken his head and turned away. There was no issue that way from the wilderness of pain and trouble into which he had strayed. She was already wedded—to that cruel art that was crushing the woman within her. Her ways of life and his were separated as though by unknown oceans. And how was it possible that so beautiful a woman—surrounded by people who petted and flattered her—should not already have her heart engaged? Even if she were free, how could she have bestowed a thought on him—a passing stranger—a summer visitor—the acquaintance of an hour?
But no sooner had Gertrude White, to his sudden wonder, and joy, and gratitude, made that stammering confession, than the impetuosity of his passion leaped at once to the goal. He would not hear of any obstacles. He would not look at them. If she would but take his hand, he would lead her and guard her, and all would go well. And it was to this effect that he wrote to her day after day, pouring out all the confidences of his heart to her, appealing to her, striving to convey to her something of his own high courage and hope. Strictly speaking, perhaps, it was not quite fair that he should thus have disturbed the calm of her deliberation. Had he not given her till the end of the week to come to a decision? But when, in his eagerness, he thought of some further reason, some further appeal, how could he remain silent? With the prize so near, he could not let it slip from his grasp through the consideration of niceties of conduct. By rights he ought to have gone up to Mr. White and begged for permission to pay his addresses to the old gentleman's daughter. He forgot all about that. He forgot that Mr. White was in existence. All his thinking from morning till night—and through much of the night too—was directed on her answer—the one small word filled with a whole worldful of light and joy.
"If you will only say that one little word," he wrote to her, "then everything else becomes a mere trifle. If there are obstacles, and troubles, and what not, we will meet them one by one, and dispose of them. There can be no obstacles, if we are of one mind; and we shall be of one mind sure enough, if you will say you will become my wife; for there is nothing I will not consent to; and I shall only be too glad to have opportunities of showing my great gratitude to you for the sacrifice you must make. I speak of it as a sacrifice; but I do not believe it is one—whatever you may think now—and whatever natural regret you may feel—you will grow to feel there was no evil done you when you were drawn away from the life that now surrounds you. And if you were to say 'I will become your wife only on one condition—that I am not asked to abandon my career as an actress,' still I would say 'Become my wife.' Surely matters of arrangement are mere trifles—after you have given me your promise. And when you have placed your hand in mine (and the motto of the Macleods is Hold Fast), we can study conditions, and obstacles, and the other nonsense that our friends are sure to suggest, at our leisure. I think I already hear you say 'Yes;' I listen and listen, until I almost hear your voice. And if it is to be 'Yes,' will you wear a red rose in your dress on Saturday? I shall see that before you speak. I will know what your message is, even if there are people about. One red rose only."
"Macleod," said Major Stuart to him, "did you come to London to write love-letters?"
"Love-letters!" he said, angrily; but then he laughed. "And what did you come to London for?"
"On a highly philanthropic errand," said the other, gravely, "which I hope to see fulfilled to-morrow. And if we have a day or two to spare, that is well enough, for one cannot be always at work; but I did not expect to take a holiday in the company of a man who spends three-fourths of the day at a writing-desk."
"Nonsense!" said Macleod, though there was some telltale color in his face. "All the writing I have done to-day would not fill up twenty minutes. And if I am a dull companion, is not Norman Ogilvie coming to dinner to-night to amuse you?"
While they were speaking, a servant brought in a card.
"Ask the gentleman to come up," Macleod said, and then he turned to his companion. "What an odd thing! I was speaking to you a minute ago about that drag accident. And here is Beauregard himself."
The tall, rough-visaged man—stooping slightly as though he thought the doorway was a trifle low—came forward and shook hands with Macleod, and was understood to inquire about his health, though what he literally said was, "Hawya, Macleod, hawya?"
"I heard you were in town from Paulton—you remember, Paulton, who dined with you at Richmond. He saw you in a hansom yesterday; and I took my chance of finding you in your old quarters. What are you doing in London?"
Macleod briefly explained.
"And you?" he asked, "what has brought you to London? I thought you and Lady Beauregard were in Ireland."
"We have just come over, and go down to Weatherill to-morrow. Won't you come down and shoot a pheasant or two before you return to the Highlands?"
"Well, the fact is," Macleod said, hesitatingly, "my friend and I—by the way, let me introduce you—Lord Beauregard, Major Stuart—the fact is, we ought to go back directly after we have settled this business."
"But a day or two won't matter. Now, let me see. Plymley comes to us on Monday next, I think. We could get up a party for you on the Tuesday; and if your friend will come with you, we shall be six guns, which I always think the best number."
The gallant major showed no hesitation whatever. The chance of blazing away at a whole atmosphereful of pheasants—for so he construed the invitation—did not often come in his way.
"I am quite sure a day or two won't make any difference," said he, quickly. "In any case we were not thinking of going till Monday, and that would only mean an extra day."
"Very well," Macleod said.
"Then you will come down to dinner on the Monday evening. I will see if there is no alteration in the trains, and drop you a note with full instructions. Is it a bargain?"
"All right. I must be off now. Good-by."
Major Stuart jumped to his feet with great alacrity, and warmly shook hands with the departing stranger. Then, when the door was shut, he went through a pantomimic expression of bringing down innumerable pheasants from every corner of the ceiling—with an occasional aim at the floor, where an imaginary hare was scurrying by.
"Macleod. Macleod," said he, "you are a trump. You may go on writing love-letters from now till next Monday afternoon. I suppose we will have a good dinner, too?"
"Beauregard is said to have the best chef in London; and I don't suppose they would leave so important a person in Ireland."
"You have my gratitude, Macleod—eternal, sincere, unbounded," the major said, seriously.
"But it is not I who am asking you to go and massacre a lot of pheasants," said Macleod; and he spoke rather absently, for he was thinking of the probable mood in which he would go down to Weatherill. One of a generous gladness and joy, the outward expression of an eager and secret happiness to be known by none? Or what if there were no red rose at all on her bosom when she advanced to meet him with sad eyes?
They went down into Essex next day. Major Stuart was surprised to find that his companion talked not so much about the price of machines for drying saturated crops as about the conjectural cost of living in the various houses they saw from afar, set amidst the leafless trees of November.
"You don't think of coming to live in England, do you?" said he.
"No—at least, not at present," Macleod said. "Of course; one never knows what may turn up. I don't propose to live at Dare all my life."
"Your wife might want to live in England," the major said, coolly.
Macleod started and stared.
"You have been writing a good many letters of late," said his companion.
"And is that all?" said Macleod, answering him in the Gaelic. "You know the proverb—Tossing the head will not make the boat row. I am not married yet."
The result of this journey was, that they agreed to purchase one of the machines for transference to the rainy regions of Mull; and then they returned to London. This was on Wednesday. Major Stuart considered they had a few days to idle by before the battue; Macleod was only excitedly aware that Thursday and Friday—two short November days—came between him and that decision which he regarded with an anxious joy.
The day went by in a sort of dream. A pale fog hung over London: and as he wandered about he saw the tall houses rise faintly blue into the gray mist; and the great coffee-colored river, flushed with recent rains, rolled down between the pale embankments; and the golden-red globe of the sun, occasionally becoming visible through the mottled clouds, sent a ray of fire here and there on some window-pane or lamp.
In the course of his devious wanderings—for he mostly went about alone—he made his way, with great trouble and perplexity, to the court in which the mother of Johnny Wickes lived; and he betrayed no shame at all in confronting the poor woman—half starved, and pale, and emaciated as she was—whose child he had stolen. It was in a tone of quite gratuitous pleasantry that he described to her how the small lad was growing brown and fat; and he had the audacity to declare to her that as he proposed to pay the boy the sum of one shilling per-week at present, he might as well hand over to her the three months' pay which he had already earned. And the woman was so amused at the notion of little Johnny Wickes being able to earn anything at all, that, when she received the money and looked at it, she burst out crying; and she had so little of the spirit of the British matron, and so little regard for the laws of her country, that she invoked Heaven knows what—Heaven does know what—blessings on the head of the very man who had carried her child into slavery.
"And the first time I am going over to Oban," said he, "I will take him with me, and I will get a photograph of him made, and I will send you the photograph. And did you get the rabbits?" said he.
"Yes, indeed, sir, I got the rabbits."
"And it is a very fine poacher your son promises to be, for he got every one of the rabbits with his own snare, though I am thinking it was old Hamish was showing him how to use it. And I will say good-by to you now."
The poor woman seemed to hesitate for a second.
"If there was any sewing, sir," wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, "that I could do for your good lady, sir—"
"But I am not married," said he, quickly.
"Ah, well, indeed, sir," she said with a sigh.
"But if there is any lace, or sewing, or anything like that you can send to my mother, I have no doubt she will pay you for it as well as any one else—"
"I was not thinking of paying, sir; but to show you I am not ungrateful," was the answer; and if she said hun-grateful, what matter? She was a woman without spirit; she had sold away her son.
From this dingy court he made his way round to Covent Garden market, and he went into a florist's shop there.
"I want a bouquet," said he to the neat-handed maiden who looked up at him.
"Yes, sir," said she; "will you look at those in the window?"
"But I want one," said he, "with a single rose—a red rose—in the centre."
This proposition did not find favor in the eyes of the mild-mannered artist, who explained to him that something more important and ornate was necessary in the middle of a bouquet. He could have a circle of rose-buds, if he liked, outside; and a great white lily or camellia in the centre. He could have—this thing and the next; she showed him how she could combine the features of this bouquet with those of the next. But the tall Highlander remained obdurate.
"Yes," said he, "I think you are quite right. You are quite right, I am sure. But it is this that I would rather have—only one red rose in the centre, and you can make the rest what you like, only I think if they were smaller flowers, and all white, that would be better."
"Very well," said the young lady, with a pleasing smile (she was rather good-looking herself). "I will try what I can do for you if you don't mind waiting. Will you take a chair?"
He was quite amazed by the dexterity with which those nimble fingers took from one cluster and another cluster the very flowers he would himself have chosen; and by the rapid fashion in which they were dressed, fitted, and arranged. The work of art grew apace.
"But you must have something to break the white," said she, smiling, "or it will look too like a bride's bouquet;" and with that—almost in the twinkling of an eye—she had put a circular line of dark purple-blue through the cream-white blossoms. It was a splendid rose that lay in the midst of all that beauty.
"What price would you like to give, sir?" the gentle Phyllis had said at the very outset. "Half a guinea—fifteen shillings?"
"Give me a beautiful rose," said he, "and I do not mind what the price is."
And at last the lace-paper was put round; and a little further trimming and setting took place; and finally the bouquet was swathed in soft white wool and put into a basket.
"Shall I take the address?" said the young lady no doubt expecting that he would write it on the back of one of his cards. But no. He dictated the address, and then lay down the money. The astute young person was puzzled—perhaps disappointed.
"Is there no message, sir?" said she—"no card?"
"No; but you must be sure to have it delivered to-night."
"It shall be sent off at once," said she, probably thinking that this was a very foolish young man who did not know the ways of the world. The only persons of whom she had any experience who sent bouquets without a note or a letter were husbands, who were either making up a quarrel with their wives or going to the opera, and she had observed that on such occasions the difference between twelve-and-sixpence and fifteen shillings was regarded and considered.
He slept but little that night; and next morning he got up nervous and trembling, like a drunken man, with half the courage and confidence, that had so long sustained him, gone. Major Stuart went out early. He kept pacing about the room until the frightfully slow half-hours went by; he hated the clock on the mantelpiece. And then, by a strong effort of will, he delayed starting until he should barely have time to reach her house by twelve o'clock, so that he should have the mad delight of eagerly wishing the hansom had a still more furious speed. He had chosen his horse well. It wanted five minutes to the appointed hour when he arrived at the house.
Did this trim maid-servant know? Was there anything of welcome in the demure smile? He followed her; his face was pale, though he knew it not; in the dusk of the room he was left alone.
But what was this on the table? He almost uttered a cry as his bewildered eyes fixed themselves on it. The very bouquet he had sent the previous evening; and behold—behold!—the red rose wanting! And then, at the same moment, he turned; and there was a vision of something all in white—that came to him timidly—all in white but for the red star of love shining there. And she did not speak at all; but she buried her head in his bosom; and he held her hands tight.
And now what will Ulva say—and the lonely shores of Fladda—and the distant Dutchman roused from his winter sleep amidst the wild waves? Far away over the white sands of Iona—and the sunlight must be shining there now—there is many a sacred spot fit for the solemn plighting of lovers' vows; and if there is any organ wanted, what more noble than the vast Atlantic rollers booming into the Bourg and Gribun caves? Surely they must know already; for the sea-birds have caught the cry; and there is a sound all through the glad rushing of the morning seas like the sound of wedding-bells. There is a bride coming to Castle Dare—the islands listen; and the wild sea calls again; and the green shores of Ulva grow greener still in the sunlight. There is a bride coming to Castle Dare; and the bride is dressed all in white—only she wears a red rose.
She was seated alone, her arms on the table, her head bent down. There was no red rose now in the white morning-dress, for she had given it to him when he left. The frail November sunshine streamed into the room and put a shimmer of gold on the soft brown of her hair.
It was a bold step she had taken, without counsel of any one. Her dream was now to give up everything that she had hitherto cared about, and to go away into private life to play the part of Lady Bountiful. And if doubts about the strength of her own resolution occasionally crossed her mind, could she not appeal for aid and courage to him who would always be by her side? When she became a Macleod, she would have to accept the motto of the Macleods. That motto is, Hold Fast.
She heard her sister come into the house, and she raised her head. Presently Carry opened the door; and it was clear she was in high spirits.
"Oh, Mopsy," said she—and this was a pet name she gave her sister Carry when the latter was in great favor—"did you ever see such a morning in November? Don't you think papa might take us to Kew Gardens?"
"I want to speak to you, Carry—come here," she said, gravely; and the younger sister went and stood by the table. "You know you and I are thrown very much on each other; and we ought to have no secrets from each other; and we ought to be always quite sure of each other's sympathy. Now, Carry, you must be patient, you must be kind: if I don't get sympathy from you, from whom should I get it?"
Carry withdrew a step, and her manner instantly changed. Gertrude White was a very clever actress; but she had never been able to impose on her younger sister. This imploring look was all very fine; this appeal for sympathy was pathetic enough; but both only awakened Carry's suspicions. In their ordinary talk sisters rarely use such formal words as "sympathy."
"What do you mean?" said she, sharply.
"There—already!" exclaimed the other, apparently in deep disappointment. "Just when I most need your kindness and sympathy, you show yourself most unfeeling—"
"I wish you would tell me what it is all about," Carry said, impatiently.
The elder sister lowered her eyes, and her fingers began to work with a paper-knife that was lying there. Perhaps this was only a bit of stage-business: or perhaps she was really a little apprehensive about the effect of her announcement.
"Carry," she said, in a low voice, "I have promised to marry Sir Keith Macleod."
Carry uttered a slight cry of horror and surprise; but this too was only a bit of stage effect, for she had fully anticipated the disclosure.
"Well, Gertrude White!" said she, apparently when she had recovered her breath. "Well—I—I—I—never!"
Her language was not as imposing as her gestures; but then nobody had written the part for her; whereas her very tolerable acting was nature's own gift.
"Now, Carry, be reasonable—don't be angry: what is the use of being vexed with what is past recalling? Any other sister would be very glad at such a time—" These were the hurried and broken sentences with which the culprit sought to stave off the coming wrath. But, oddly enough, Miss Carry refrained from denunciations or any other stormy expression of her anger and scorn. She suddenly assumed a cold and critical air.
"I suppose," said she, "before you allowed Sir Keith Macleod to ask you to become his wife, you explained to him our circumstances."
"I don't understand you."
"You told him, of course, that you had a ne'er-do-well brother in Australia, who might at any moment appear and disgrace the whole family?"
"I told him nothing of the kind. I had no opportunity of getting into family affairs. And if I had, what has Tom got to do with Sir Keith Macleod? I had forgotten his very existence—no wonder, after eight years of absolute silence."
But Carry, having fired this shot, was off after other ammunition.
"You told him you had sweethearts before?"
"No, I did not," said Miss Gertrude White, warmly, "because it isn't true."
"The orchestra leader in a provincial theatre!"
"Oh yes! but you did not speak so contemptuously of him then. Why, you made him believe he was another Mendelssohn!"
"You are talking nonsense."
"And Mr. Brook—you no doubt told him that Mr. Brook called on papa, and asked him to go down to Doctors' Commons and see for himself what money he would have—"
"And what then? How can I prevent any idiotic boy who chooses to turn me into a heroine from going and making a fool of himself?"
"Oh, Gertrude White!" said Carry, solemnly. "Will you sit there and tell me you gave him no encouragement?"
"This is mere folly!" the elder sister said, petulantly; as she rose and proceeded to put straight a few of the things about the room. "I had hoped better things of you, Carry. I tell you of an important step I have taken in my life, and you bring out a lot of tattle and nonsense. However, I can act for myself. It is true, I had imagined something different. When I marry, of course, we shall be separated. I had looked forward to the pleasure of showing you my new home."
"Where is it to be?"
"Wherever my husband wishes it to be," she answered, proudly; but there was a conscious flush of color in her face as she uttered—for the first time—that word.
"In the Highlands, I suppose, for he is not rich enough to have two houses," said Carry; which showed that she had been pondering over this matter before. "And he has already got his mother and his old-maid sister, or whatever she is, in the house. You will make a pretty family!"
This was a cruel thrust. When Macleod had spoken of the far home overlooking the Northern seas, what could be more beautiful than his picture of the noble and silver-haired dame, and of the gentle and loving cousin who was the friend and counsellor of the poor people around? And when he had suggested that some day or other Mr. White might bring his daughter to these remote regions to see all the wonders and the splendors of them, he told her how the beautiful mother would take her to this place and to that place, and how that Janet Macleod would pet and befriend her, and perhaps teach her a few words of the Gaelic, that she might have a kindly phrase for the passer-by. But this picture of Carry's!—a houseful of wrangling women!
If she had had her will just then, she would instantly have recalled Macleod, and placed his courage and careless confidence between her and this cruel criticism. She had never, in truth, thought of these things. His pertinacity would not allow her. He had kept insisting that the only point for her to consider was whether she had sufficient love for him to enable her to answer his great love for her with the one word "Yes." Thereafter, according to his showing, everything else was a mere trifle. Obstacles, troubles, delays?—he would hear of nothing of the sort. And although, while he was present, she had been inspired by something of this confident feeling, now when she was attacked in his absence she felt herself defenceless.
"You may be as disagreeable as you like, Carry," said she, almost wearily. "I cannot help it. I never could understand your dislike to Sir Keith Macleod."
"Cannot you understand," said the younger sister, with some show of indignation, "that if you are to marry at all, I should like to see you marry an Englishman, instead of a great Highland savage who thinks about nothing but beasts' skins. And why should you marry at all, Gertrude White? I suppose he will make you leave the theatre; and instead of being a famous woman whom everybody admires and talks about, you will be plain Mrs. Nobody, hidden away in some place, and no one will ever hear of you again! Do you know what you are doing? Did you ever hear of any woman making such a fool of herself before?"
So far from being annoyed by this strong language, the elder sister seemed quite pleased.
"Do you know, Carry, I like to hear you talk like that," she said, with a smile. "You almost persuade me that I am not asking him for too great a sacrifice, after all—"
"A sacrifice! On his part!" exclaimed the younger sister; and then she added, with decision: "but it shan't be, Gertrude White! I will go to papa."
"Pardon me," said the elder sister, who was nearer the door, "you need not trouble yourself: I am going now."
She went into the small room which was called her father's study, but which was in reality a sort of museum. She closed the door behind her.
"I have just had the pleasure of an interview with Carry, papa," she said, with a certain bitterness of tone, "and she has tried hard to make me as miserable as I can be. If I am to have another dose of it from you, papa, I may as well have it at once. I have promised to marry Sir Keith Macleod."
She sank down in an easy-chair. There was a look on her face which plainly said, "Now do your worst; I cannot be more wretched than I am."
"You have promised to marry Sir Keith Macleod?" he repeated, slowly, and fixing his eyes on her face.
He did not break into any rage, and accuse Macleod of treachery or her of filial disobedience. He knew that she was familiar with that kind of thing. What he had to deal with was the immediate future, not the past.
"Yes," she answered.
"Well," he said, with the same deliberation of tone, "I suppose you have not come to me for advice, since you have, acted so far for yourself. If I were to give you advice, however, it would be to break your promise as soon as you decently can, both for his sake and for your own."
"I thought you would say so," she said, with a sort of desperate mirth. "I came to have all my wretchedness heaped on me at once. It is a very pleasing sensation. I wonder if I could express it on the stage. That would be making use of my new experiences—as you have taught me—"
But here she burst into tears; and then got up and walked impatiently about the room; and finally dried her eyes, with shame and mortification visible on her face.
"What have you to say to me, papa? I am a fool to mind what a schoolgirl says."
"I don't know that I have anything to say," he observed, calmly. "You know your own feelings best."
And then he regarded her attentively.
"I suppose when you marry you will give up the stage."
"I suppose so," she said, in a low voice.
"I should doubt," he said, with quite a dispassionate air, "your being able to play one part for a lifetime. You might get tired—and that would be awkward for your husband and yourself. I don't say anything about your giving up all your prospects, although I had great pride in you and a still greater hope. That is for your own consideration. If you think you will be happier—if you are sure you will have no regret—if, as I say, you think you can play the one part for a lifetime—well and good."
"And you are right," she said, bitterly, "to speak of me as an actress, and not as a human being. I must be playing a part to the end, I suppose. Perhaps so. Well, I hope I shall please my smaller audience as well as I seem to have pleased the bigger one."
Then she altered her tone.
"I told you, papa, the other day of my having seen that child run over and brought back to the woman who was standing on the pavement."
"Yes," said he; but wondering why this incident should be referred to at such a moment.
"I did not tell you the truth—at least the whole truth. When I walked away, what was I thinking of? I caught myself trying to recall the way in which the woman threw her arms up when she saw the dead body of her child, and I was wondering whether I could repeat it. And then I began to wonder whether I was a devil—or a woman."
"Bah!" said he. "That is a craze you have at present. You have had fifty others before. What I am afraid of is that, at the instigation of some such temporary fad, you will take a step that you will find irrevocable. Just think it over, Gerty. If you leave the stage, you will destroy many a hope I had formed; but that doesn't matter. Whatever is most for your happiness—that is the only point."
"And so you have given me your congratulations, papa," she said, rising. "I have been so thoroughly trained to be an actress that, when I marry, I shall only go from one stage to another."
"That was only a figure of speech," said he.
"At all events," she said, "I shall not be vexed by petty jealousies of other actresses, and I shall cease to be worried and humiliated by what they say about me in the provincial newspapers."
"As for the newspapers," he retorted, "you have little to complain of. They have treated you very well. And even if they annoyed you by a phrase here or there, surely the remedy is simple. You need not read them. You don't require any recommendation to the public now. As for your jealousy of other actresses—that was always an unreasonable vexation on your part—"
"Yes, and that only made it the more humiliating to myself," said she, quickly.
"But think of this," said he. "You are married. You have been long away from the scene of your former triumphs. Some day you go to the theatre; and you find as the favorite of the public a woman who, you can see, cannot come near to what you used to do. And I suppose you won't be jealous of her, and anxious to defeat her on the old ground."
"I can do with that as you suggested about the newspapers: I need not go to the theatre."
"Very well, Gerty. I hope all will be for the best. But do not be in a hurry; take time and consider."
She saw clearly enough that this calm acquiescence was all the congratulation or advice she was likely to get; and she went to the door.
"Papa," said she, diffidently, "Sir Keith Macleod is coming up to-morrow morning—to go to church with us."
"Yes?" said he, indifferently.
"He may speak to you before we go."
"Very well. Of course I have nothing to say in the matter. You are mistress of your own actions."
She went to her own room, and locked herself in, feeling very lonely, and disheartened, and miserable. There was more to alarm her in her father's faintly expressed doubts than in all Carry's vehement opposition and taunts. Why had Macleod left her alone?—if only she could see him laugh, her courage would be reassured.
Then she bethought her that this was not a fit mood for one who had promised to be the wife of a Macleod. She went to the mirror and regarded herself; and almost unconsciously an expression of pride and resolve appeared about the lines of her mouth. And she would show to herself that she had still a woman's feelings by going out and doing some actual work of charity; she would prove to herself that the constant simulation of noble emotions had not deadened them in her own nature. She put on her hat and shawl, and went downstairs, and went out into the free air and the sunlight—without a word to either Carry or her father. She was trying to imagine herself as having already left the stage and all its fictitious allurements. She was now Lady Bountiful: having looked after the simple cares of her household she was now ready to cast her eyes abroad, and relieve in so far as she might the distress around her. The first object of charity she encountered was an old crossing-sweeper. She addressed him in a matter-of-fact way which was intended to conceal her fluttering self-consciousness. She inquired whether he had a wife; whether he had any children; whether they were not rather poor. And having been answered in the affirmative on all these points, she surprised the old man by giving him five shillings and telling him to go home and get a good warm dinner for his family. She passed on, and did not observe that, as soon as her back was turned, the old wretch made straight for the nearest public-house.
But her heart was happy; and her courage rose. It was not for nothing, then, that she had entertained the bold resolve of casting aside forever the one great ambition of her life—with all its intoxicating successes, and hopes, and struggles—for the homely and simple duties of an ordinary woman's existence. It was not in vain that she had read and dreamed of the far romantic land, and had ventured to think of herself as the proud wife of Macleod of Dare. Those fierce deeds of valor and vengeance that had terrified and thrilled her would now become part of her own inheritance: why, she could tell her friends, when they came to see her, of all the old legends and fairy stories that belonged to her own home. And the part of Lady Bountiful—surely, if she must play some part that was the one she would most dearly like to play. And the years would go by; and she would grow silver-haired too; and when she lay on her deathbed she would take her husband's hand and say, "Have I lived the life you wished me to live?" Her cheerfulness grew apace; and the walking, and the sunshine, and the fresh air brought a fine light and color to her eyes and cheeks. There was a song singing through her head; and it was all about the brave Glenogie who rode up the king's ha'.
But as she turned the corner of a street, her eye rested on a huge colored placard—rested but for a moment, for she would not look on the great, gaudy thing. Just at this time a noble lord had shown his interest in the British drama by spending an enormous amount of money in producing, at a theatre of his own building, a spectacular burlesque, the gorgeousness of which surpassed anything that had ever been done in that way. And the lady who appeared to be playing (in silence mostly) the chief part in this hash of glaring color and roaring music and clashing armor had gained a great celebrity by reason of her handsome figure, and the splendor of her costume, and the magnificence of the real diamonds that she wore. All London was talking of her; and the vast theatre—even in November—was nightly crammed to overflowing. As Gertrude White walked back to her home her heart was filled with bitterness. She had caught sight of the ostentatious placard; and she knew that the photograph of the creature who was figuring there was in every stationer's shop in the Strand. And that which galled her was not that the theatre should be so taken and so used, but that the stage heroine of the hour should be a woman who could act no more than any baboon in the Zoological Gardens.
But as for him, there was no moderation at all in the vehemence of his joy. In the surprise and bewilderment of it, the world around him underwent transfiguration; London in November was glorified into an earthly paradise. The very people in the streets seemed to have kindly faces; Bury Street, St. James's—which is usually a somewhat misty thoroughfare—was more beautiful than the rose-garden of an Eastern king. And on this Saturday afternoon the blue skies did, indeed, continue to shine over the great city; and the air seemed sweet and clear enough, as it generally does to any one whose every heart-beat is only another throb of conscious gladness.
In this first intoxication of wonder, and pride, and gratitude, he had forgotten all about these ingenious theories which, in former days, he had constructed to promise to himself that Gertrude White should give up her present way of life. Was it true, then, that he had rescued the white slave? Was it once and forever that Nature, encountering the subtle demon of Art, had closed and wrestled with the insidious thing, had seized it by the throat, and choked it, and flung it aside from the fair roadway of life? He had forgotten about these things now. All that he was conscious of was this eager joy, with now and again a wild wonder that he should indeed have acquired so priceless a possession. Was it possible that she would really withdraw herself from the eyes of all the world and give herself to him alone?—that some day, in the beautiful and laughing future, the glory of her presence would light up the dull halls of Castle Dare?
Of course he poured all his pent-up confidence into the ear of the astonished major, and again and again expressed his gratitude to his companion for having given him the opportunity of securing this transcendent happiness. The major was somewhat frightened. He did not know in what measure he might be regarded as an accomplice by the silver-haired lady of Castle Dare. And in any case he was alarmed by the vehemence of the young man.
"My dear Macleod," said he, with an oracular air, "you never have any hold on yourself. You fling the reins on the horse's neck, and gallop down hill; a very slight check would send you whirling to the bottom. Now, you should take the advice of a man of the world, who is older than you, and who—if I may say so—has kept his eyes open. I don't want to discourage you; but you should take it for granted that accidents may happen. I would feel the reins a little bit, if I were you. Once you've got her into the church, and see her with a white veil over her head, then you may be as perfervid as you like—"
And so the simple-minded major prattled on, Macleod paying but little heed. There had been nothing about Major Stuart's courtship and marriage to shake the world: why, he said to himself, when the lady was pleased to lend a favoring ear, was there any reason for making such a fuss?
"Your happiness will all depend on one thing," said he to Macleod, with a complacent wisdom in the round and jovial face. "Take my word for it. I hear of people studying the character, the compatibilities, and what not, of other people; but I never knew of a young man thinking of such things when he was in love. He plunges in, and finds out afterward. Now it all comes this—is she likely, or not likely, to prove a sigher?"
"A what?" said Macleod, apparently awakening from a trance.
"A sigher. A woman who goes about the house all day sighing, whether over your sins or her own, she won't tell you."
"Indeed, I cannot say," Macleod said, laughing. "I should hope not. I think she has excellent spirits."
"Ah!" said the major, thoughtfully; and he himself sighed. Perhaps he was thinking of a certain house far away in Mull, to which he had shortly to return.
Macleod did not know how to show his gratitude toward this good-natured friend. He would have given him half a dozen banquets a day; and Major Stuart liked a London dinner. But what he did offer as a great reward was this: that Major Stuart should go up the next morning to a particular church, and take up a particular position in the church, and then—then he would get a glimpse of the most wonderful creature the world had seen. Oddly enough, the major did not eagerly accept this munificent offer. To another proposal—that he should go up to Mr. White's, on the first day after their return from Sussex, and meet the young lady at luncheon—he seemed better inclined.
"But why shouldn't we go to the theatre to-night?" said he, in his simple way.
Macleod looked embarrassed.
"Frankly, then, Stuart," said he, "I don't want you to make her acquaintance as an actress."
"Oh, very well," said he, not greatly disappointed. "Perhaps it is better. You see, I may be questioned at Castle Dare. Have you considered that matter?"
"Oh no," Macleod said, lightly and cheerfully, "I have had time to consider nothing as yet. I can scarcely believe it to be all real. It takes a deal of hard thinking to convince myself that I am not dreaming."
But the true fashion in which Macleod showed his gratitude to his friend was in concealing his great reluctance on going down with him into Sussex. It was like rending his heart-strings for him to leave London for a single hour at this time. What beautiful confidences, and tender, timid looks, and sweet, small words he was leaving behind him in order to go and shoot a lot of miserable pheasants! He was rather gloomy when he met the major at Victoria Station. They got into the train; and away through the darkness of the November afternoon they rattled to Three Bridges; but all the eager sportsman had gone out of him, and he had next to nothing to say in answer to the major's excited questions. Occasionally he would rouse himself from this reverie, and he would talk in a perfunctory sort of fashion about the immediate business of a moment. He confessed that he had a certain theoretical repugnance to a battue, if it were at all like what people in the newspapers declared it to be. On the other hand, he could not well understand—judging by his experiences in the highlands—how the shooting of driven birds could be so marvellously easy; and he was not quite, sure that the writers he had referred to had had many opportunities of practising, or even observing, so very expensive an amusement. Major Stuart, for his part, freely admitted that he had no scruples whatever. Shooting birds, he roundly declared, was shooting birds, whether you shot two or two score. And he demurely hinted that, if he had his choice, he would rather shoot the two score.
"Mind you, Stuart," Macleod said, "if we are posted anywhere near each other—mind you shoot at any bird that comes my way. I should like you to make a big bag that you may talk about in Mull; and I really don't care about it."
And this was the man whom Miss Carry had described as being nothing but a slayer of wild animals and a preserver of beasts' skins! Perhaps, in that imaginary duel between Nature and Art, the enemy was not so thoroughly beaten and thrown aside, after all.
So they got to Three Bridges, and there they found the carriage awaiting them; and presently they were whirling away along the dark roads, with the lamps shining alternately on a line of hedge or on a long stretch of ivied brick wall. And at last they passed a lodge gate, and drove through a great and silent park; and finally, rattling over the gravel, drew up in front of some gray steps and a blaze of light coming from the wide-open doors. Under Lord Beauregard's guidance, they went into the drawing-room, and found a number of people idly chatting there, or reading by the subdued light of the various lamps on the small tables. There was a good deal of talk about the weather. Macleod, vaguely conscious that these people were only strangers, and that the one heart that was thinking of him was now far away, paid but little heed; if he had been told that the barometer predicted fifteen thunder-storms for the morrow, he would have been neither startled nor dismayed.
But he managed to say to his host, aside:—
"Beauregard, look here. I suppose, in this sort of shooting, you have some little understanding with your head-keeper about the posts—who is to be a bit favored, you know. Well, I wish you would ask him to look after my friend Stuart. He can leave me out altogether, if he likes."
"My dear fellow, there will be scarcely any difference; but I will look after your friend myself. I suppose you have no guns with you?"
"I have borrowed Ogilvie's. Stuart has none."
"I will get one for him."
By and by they went upstairs to their respective rooms, and Macleod was left alone, that is to say, he was scarcely aware of the presence of the man who was opening his portmanteau and putting out his things. He lay back in the low easy-chair, and stared absently into the blazing fire. This was a beautiful but a lonely house. There were many strangers in it. But if she had been one of the people below—if he could at this moment look forward to meeting her at dinner—if there was a chance of his sitting beside her and listening to the low and sweet voice—with what an eager joy he would have waited for the sound of the bell! As it was, his heart was in London. He had no sort of interest in this big house, or in the strangers whom he had met, or in the proceedings of the morrow, about which all the men were talking. It was a lonely house.
He was aroused by a tapping at the door.
"Come in," he said, and Major Stuart entered, blooming and roseate over his display of white linen.
"Good gracious!" said he, "aren't you dressed yet? It wants but ten minutes to dinner-time. What have you been doing?"
Macleod jumped up with some shamefacedness, and began to array himself quickly.
"Macleod," said the major, subsiding into the big armchair very carefully so as not to crease his shining shirt-front, "I must give you another piece of advice. It is serious. I have heard again and again that when a man thinks only of one thing—when he keeps brooding over it day and night—he is bound to become mad. They call it monomania. You are becoming a monomaniac."
"Yes, I think I am," Macleod said, laughing; "but it is a very pleasant sort of monomania, and I am not anxious to become sane. But you really must not be hard on me, Stuart. You know that this is rather an important thing that has happened to me; and it wants a good deal of thinking over."
"Bah!" the major cried, "why take it so much au grand serieux? A girl likes you; says she'll marry you; probably, if she continues in the same mind, she will. Consider your self a lucky dog; and don't break your heart if an accident occurs. Hope for the best—that you and she mayn't quarrel, and that she mayn't prove a sigher. Now what do you think of this house? I consider it an uncommon good dodge to put each person's name outside his bedroom door; there can't be any confounded mistakes—and women squealing—if you come up late at night. Why, Macleod, you don't mean that this affair has destroyed all your interest in the shooting? Man, I have been down to the gun-room with your friend Beauregard; have seen the head-keeper; got a gun that suits me firstrate—a trifle long in the stock, perhaps, but no matter. You won't tip any more than the head-keeper, eh? And the fellow who carries your cartridge-bag? I do think it uncommonly civil of a man not only to ask you to go shooting, but to find you in guns and cartridges; don't you?"