The major chatted on with great cheerfulness. He clearly considered that he had got into excellent quarters. At dinner he told some of his most famous Indian stories to Lady Beauregard, near whom he was sitting; and at night, in the improvised smoking-room, he was great on deer-stalking. It was not necessary for Macleod, or anybody else, to talk. The major was in full flow, though he stoutly refused to touch the spirits on the table. He wanted a clear head and a steady hand for the morning.
Alas! alas! The next morning presented a woful spectacle. Gray skies; heavy and rapidly drifting clouds; pouring rain; runnels of clear water by the side of every gravel-path; a rook or two battling with the squally south-wester high over the wide and desolate park: the wild-ducks at the margin of the ruffled lake flapping their wings as if the wet was too much even for them; nearer at hand the firs and evergreens all dripping. After breakfast the male guests wandered disconsolately into the cold billiard-room, and began knocking the balls about. All the loquacious cheerfulness of the major had fled. He looked out on the wet park and the sombre woods, and sighed.
But about twelve o'clock there was a great hurry and confusion throughout the house; for all of a sudden the skies in the west cleared; there was a glimmer of blue; and then gleams of a pale wan light began to stream over the landscape. There was a rash to the gun-room, and an eager putting on of shooting-boots and leggings; there was a rapid tying up of small packages of sandwiches; presently the wagonette was at the door. And then away they went over the hard gravel, and out into the wet roads, with the sunlight now beginning to light up the beautiful woods about Crawley. The horses seemed to know there was no time to lose. A new spirit took possession of the party. The major's face glowed as red as the hip that here and there among the almost leafless hedges shone in the sunlight on the ragged brier stem.
And yet it was about one o'clock before the work of the day began, for the beaters had to be summoned from various parts, and the small boys with the white flags—the "stops"—had to be posted so as to check runners. And then the six guns went down over a ploughed field—half clay and half chalk, and ankle deep—to the margin of a rapidly running and coffee-colored stream, which three of them had to cross by means of a very shaky plank. Lord Beauregard, Major Stuart, and Macleod remained on this side, keeping a lookout for a straggler, but chiefly concerned with the gradually opening and brightening sky. Then far away they heard a slight tapping on the trees; and almost at the same moment another sound caused the hearts of the two novices to jump. It was a quick cuck-cuck, accompanied by a rapid and silken winnowing of the air. Then an object, which seemed like a cannon-ball with a long tail attached, came whizzing along. Major Stuart fired—a bad miss. Then he wheeled round, took good aim, and down came a mass of feathers, whirling, until it fell motionless on the ground.
"Well hit!" Macleod cried; but at the same moment he became conscious that he had better mind his own business, for there was another whirring sound, and then he saw this rapidly enlarging object coming straight at him. He fired, and shot the bird dead; but so rapid was its flight that he had to duck his head as the slain bird drove past his face and tumbled on to the ground behind him.
"This is rather like firing at bomb-shells," he called out to Lord Beauregard.
It was certainly a new experience for Macleod to figure as a novice in any matter connected with shooting; but both the major and he speedily showed that they were not unfamiliar with the use of a gun. Whether the birds came at them like bomb-shells, or sprung like a sky-rocket through the leafless branches, they met with the same polite attention; though occasionally one would double back on the beaters and get clear away, sailing far into the silver-clear sky. Lord Beauregard scarcely shot at all, unless he was fairly challenged by a bird flying right past him: he seemed quite content to see his friends having plenty of work; while, in the interest of the beaters, he kept calling out, in a high monotone, "Shoot high! shoot high!" Then there was some motion among the brushwood; here and there a man or boy appeared; and finally the under-keeper with his retriever came across the stream to pick up the dead birds.
That bit was done with: vorwarts!
"Well, Stuart," Macleod said, "what do you think of it? I don't see anything murderous or unsportsmanlike in this kind of shooting. Of course shooting with dogs is much prettier; and you don't get any exercise standing in a wet field; but the man who says that shooting those birds requires no skill at all—well, I should like see him try."
"Macleod," said the major, gravely, as they plodded along, "you may think that I despise this kind of thing; but I don't: I give you my solemn word of honor that I don't. I will even go the length of saying that if Providence had blessed me with L20,000 a year, I should be quite content to own a bit of country like this. I played the part of the wild mountaineer last night, you know; that was all very well—"
Here there was a loud call from Lord Beauregard, who had overtaken them—"Hare! hare! Mark hare?" The major jumped round, put up his gun, and banged away—shooting far ahead in his eagerness. Macleod looked on, and did not even raise his gun.
"That comes of talking," the major said, gloomily. "And you—why didn't you shoot? I never saw you miss a hare in my life."
"I was not thinking of it," Macleod said, indifferently.
It was very soon apparent that he was thinking of something other than the shooting of pheasants or hares; for as they went from one wood to another during this beautiful brief November day he generally carried his gun over his shoulder—even when the whirring, bright-plumaged birds were starting from time to time from the hedgerows—and devoted most of his attention to warning his friend when and where to shoot. However, an incident occurred which entirely changed the aspect of affairs. At one beat he was left quite alone, posted in an open space of low brushwood close by the corner of a wood. He rested the butt of his gun on his foot; he was thinking, not of any pheasant or hare, but of the beautiful picture Gertrude White would make if she were coming down one of these open glades, between the green stems of the trees, with the sunlight around her and the fair sky overhead. Idly he watched the slowly drifting clouds; they were going away northward—by and by they would sail over London. The rifts of blue widened in the clear silver; surely the sunlight would now be shining over Regent's Park. Occasionally a pheasant came clattering along; he only regarded the shining colors of its head and neck brilliant in the sunlight. A rabbit trotted by him; he let it go. But while he was standing thus, and vaguely listening to the rattle of guns on the other side, he was suddenly startled by a quick cry of pain: and he thought he heard some one call, "Macleod! Macleod!" Instantly he put his gun against a bush, and ran. He found a hedge at the end of the wood; he drove through it, and got into the open field. There was the unlucky major, with blood running down his face, a handkerchief in his hand, and two men beside him, one of them offering him some brandy from a flask. However, after the first flight was over, it was seen that Major Stuart was but slightly hurt. The youngest member of the party had fired at a bird coming out of the wood; had missed it; had tried to wheel round to send the second barrel after it; but his feet, having sunk into the wet clay, had caught there, and, in his stumbling fall, somehow or other the second barrel went off, one pellet just catching the major under the eye. The surface wound caused a good shedding of blood, but that was all; and when the major had got his face washed he shouldered his gun again, and with indomitable pluck said he would see the thing out. It was nothing but a scratch, he declared. It might have been dangerous; but what was the good of considering what might have been? To the young man who had been the cause of the accident, and who was quite unable to express his profound sorrow and shame, he was generously considerate, saying that he had fined him in the sum of one penny when he took a postage-stamp to cover the wound.
"Lord Beauregard," said he, cheerfully, "I want you to show me a thorough-going hot corner. You know I am an ignoramus of this kind of thing."
"Well," said his host, "there is a good bit along here, if you would rather go on."
"Go on?" said he. "Of course!"
And it was a "hot corner." They came to it at the end of a long double hedgerow connected with the wood they had just beaten; and as there was no "stop" at the corner of the wood, the pheasants in large numbers had run into the channel between the double line of hedge. Here they were followed by the keepers and beaters, who kept gently driving them along. Occasionally one got up, and was instantly knocked over by one of the guns; but it was evident that the "hot corner" would be at the end of this hedgerow, where there was stationed a smock-frocked rustic who, down on his knees, was gently tapping with a bit of stick. The number of birds getting up increased, so that the six guns had pretty sharp work to reckon with them; and not a few of the wildly whirring objects got clean away into the next wood—Lord Beauregard all the time calling out from the other side of the hedge, "Shoot high! shoot high!" But at the end of the hedgerow an extraordinary scene occurred. One after the other, then in twos and threes, the birds sprang high over the bushes; the rattle of musketry—all the guns being together now—was deafening: the air was filled with gunpowder smoke; and every second or two another bird came tumbling down on to the young corn. Macleod, with a sort of derisive laugh, put his gun over his shoulder.
"This is downright stupidity," he said to Major Stuart, who was blazing away as hard as ever he could cram cartridges into the hot barrels of his gun. "You can't tell whether you are hitting the bird or not. There! Three men fired at that bird—the other two were not touched."
The fusillade lasted for about eight or ten minutes; and then it was discovered that though certainly two or three hundred pheasants had got up at this corner, only twenty-two and a half brace were killed—to five guns.
"Well," said the major, taking off his cap and wiping his forehead, "that was a bit of a scrimmage!"
"Perhaps," said Macleod, who had been watching with some amusement his friend's fierce zeal; "but it was not shooting. I defy you to say how many birds you shot. Or I will do this with you—I will bet you a sovereign that if you ask each man to tell you how many birds he has shot during the day, and add them all up, the total will be twice the number of birds the keepers will take home. But I am glad you seem to enjoy it, Stuart."
"To tell you the truth, Macleod," said the other, "I think I have had enough of it. I don't want to make a fuss; but I fancy I don't quite see clearly with this eye. It may be some slight inflammation; but I think I will go back to the house, and see if there's any surgeon in the neighborhood."
"There you are right; and I will go back with you," Macleod said, promptly.
When their host heard of this, he was for breaking up the party; but Major Stuart warmly remonstrated; and so one of the men was sent with the two friends to show them the way back to the house. When the surgeon came he examined the wound, and pronounced it to be slight enough in itself, but possibly dangerous when so near so sensitive an organ as the eye. He advised the major, if any symptoms of inflammation declared themselves, to go at once to a skillful oculist in London, and not to leave for the North until he was quite assured.
"That sounds rather well, Macleod," said he, ruefully.
"Oh, if you must remain in London—though I hope not—I will stay with you," Macleod said. It was a great sacrifice, his remaining in London, instead of going at once back to Castle Dare; but what will not one do for one's friend?
On the eventful morning on which Major Stuart was to be presented to the chosen bride of Macleod of Dare, the simple-hearted soldier—notwithstanding that he had a shade over one eye, made himself exceedingly smart. He would show the young lady that Macleod's friends in the North were not barbarians. The major sent back his boots to be brushed a second time. A more smoothly fitting pair of gloves Bond Street never saw.
"But you have not the air," said he to Macleod, "of a young fellow going to see his sweetheart. What is the matter, man?"
Macleod hesitated for a moment.
"Well, I am anxious she should impress you favorably," said he, frankly; "and it is an awkward position for her—and she will be embarrassed, no doubt—and I have some pity for her, and almost wish some other way had been taken—"
"Oh, nonsense?" the major said, cheerfully. "You need not be nervous on her account. Why, man, the silliest girl in the world could impose on an old fool like me. Once upon a time, perhaps, I may have considered myself a connoisseur—well, you know, Macleod, I once had a waist like the rest of you; but now, bless you, if a tolerably pretty girl only says a civil word or two to me, I begin to regard her as if I were her guardian angel—in loco parentis, and that kind of thing—and I would sooner hang myself than scan her dress or say a word about her figure. Do you think she will be afraid of a critic with one eye? Have courage, man. I dare bet a sovereign she is quite capable of taking care of herself. It's her business."
Macleod flushed quickly, and the one eye of the major caught that sudden confession of shame or resentment.
"What I meant was," he said, instantly, "that nature had taught the simplest of virgins a certain trick of fence—oh yes, don't you be afraid. Embarrassment! If there is any one embarrassed, it will not be me, and it will not be she. Why, she'll begin to wonder whether you are really one of the Macleods, if you show yourself nervous, apprehensive, frightened like this."
"And indeed, Stuart," said he, rising as if to shake off some weight of gloomy feeling, "I scarcely know what is the matter with me. I ought to be the happiest man in the world; and sometimes this very happiness seems so great that it is like to suffocate me—I cannot breathe fast enough; and then, again, I get into such unreasoning fears and troubles—Well, let us get out into the fresh air."
The major carefully smoothed his hat once more, and took up his cane. He followed Macleod down stairs—like Sancho Panza waiting on Don Quixote, as he himself expressed it; and then the two friends slowly sauntered away northward on this fairly clear and pleasant December morning.
"Your nerves are not in a healthy state, that's the fact, Macleod," said the major, as they walked along. "The climate of London is too exciting for you; a good, long, dull winter in Mull will restore your tone. But in the meantime don't cut my throat, or your own, or anybody else's."
"Am I likely to do that?" Macleod said, laughing.
"There was young Bouverie," the major continued, not heeding the question—"what a handsome young fellow he was when he joined us at Gawulpoor!—and he hadn't been in the place a week but he must needs go regular head over heels about our colonel's sister-in-law. An uncommon pretty woman she was, too—an Irish girl, and fond of riding; and dash me if that fellow didn't fairly try to break his neck again and again just that she should admire his pluck! He was as mad as a hatter about her. Well, one day two or three of us had been riding for two or three hours on a blazing hot morning, and we came to one of the irrigation reservoirs—big wells, you know—and what does he do but offer to bet twenty pounds he would dive into the well and swim about for ten minutes, till we hoisted him out at the end of the rope. I forget who took the bet, for none of us thought he would do it: but I believe he would have done anything so that the story of his pluck would be carried to the girl, don't you know. Well, off went his clothes, and in he jumped into the ice-cold water. Nothing would stop him. But at the end of the ten minutes, when we hoisted up the rope, there was no Bouverie there. It appeared that on clinging on to the rope he had twisted it somehow, and suddenly found himself about to have his neck broken, so he had to shake himself free and plunge into the water again. When at last we got him out, he had had a longer bath than he had bargained for; but there was apparently nothing the matter with him—and he had won the money, and there would be a talk about him. However, two days afterward, when he was at dinner, he suddenly felt as though he had got a blow on the back of his head—so he told us afterward—and fell back insensible. That was the beginning of it. It took him five or six years to shake off the effects of that dip—"
"And did she marry him, after all?" Macleod said, eagerly.
"Oh dear, no! I think he had been invalided home not more than two or three months when she married Connolly, of the Seventy-first Madras Infantry. Then she ran away from him with some civilian fellow, and Connolly blew his brains out. That," said the major, honestly, "is always a puzzle to me. How a fellow can be such an ass as to blow his brains out when his wife runs away from him beats my comprehension altogether. Now what I would do would be this: I would thank goodness I was rid of such a piece of baggage; I would get all the good-fellows I know, and give them a rattling fine dinner; and I would drink a bumper to her health and another bumper to her never coming back."
"And I would send you our Donald, and he would play, 'Cha till mi tuilich' for you," Macleod said.
"But as for blowing my brains out! Well," the major added, with a philosophic air, "when a man is mad he cares neither for his own life nor for anybody else's. Look at those cases you continually see in the papers: a young man is in love with a young woman; they quarrel, or she prefers some one else; what does he do but lay hold of her some evening and cut her throat—to show his great love for her—and then he coolly gives himself up to the police, and says he is quite content to be hanged."
"Stuart," said Macleod, laughing, "I don't like this talk about hanging. You said a minute or two ago that I was mad."
"More or less," observed the major, with absolute gravity; "as the lawyer said when he mentioned the Fifteen-acres park at Dublin."
"Well, let us get into a hansom," Macleod said. "When I am hanged you will ask them to write over my tombstone that I never kept anybody waiting for either luncheon or dinner."
The trim maid-servant who opened the door greeted Macleod with a pleasant smile; she was a sharp wench, and had discovered that lovers have lavish hands. She showed the two visitors into the drawing-room; Macleod silent, and listening intently; the one-eyed major observing everything, and perhaps curious to know whether the house of an actress differed from that of anybody else. He very speedily came to the conclusion that, in his small experience, he had never seen any house of its size so tastefully decorated and accurately managed as this simple home.
"But what's this!" he cried, going to the mantelpiece and taking down a drawing that was somewhat ostentatiously placed there. "Well! If this is English hospitality! By Jove! an insult to me, and my father, and my father's clan, that blood alone will wipe out. 'The Astonishment of Sandy MacAlister Mhor on beholding a Glimpse of Sunlight,' Look!"
He showed the rude drawing to Macleod—a sketch of a wild Highlander, with his hair on end, his eyes starting out of his head, and his hands uplifted in bewilderment. This work of art was the production of Miss Carry, who, on hearing the knock at the door, had whipped into the room, placed her bit of savage satire over the mantelpiece, and whipped out again. But her deadly malice so far failed of its purpose that, instead of inflicting any annoyance, it most effectually broke the embarrassment of Miss Gertrude's entrance and introduction to the major.
"Carry has no great love for the Highlands," she said, laughing and slightly blushing at the same time; "but she need not have prepared so cruel a welcome for you. Won't you sit down, Major Stuart? Papa will be here directly."
"I think it is uncommonly clever," the major said, fixing his one eye on the paper as if he would give Miss White distinctly to understand that he had not come to stare at her—"Perhaps she will like us better when she knows more about us."
"Do you think," said Miss White, demurely, "that it is possible for any one born in the South to learn to like the bagpipes?"
"No," said Macleod, quickly—and it was not usual for him to break in in this eager way about a usual matter of talk—"that is all a question of association. If you had been brought up to associate the sound of the pipes with every memorable thing—with the sadness of a funeral, and the welcome of friends come to see you, and the pride of going away to war—then you would understand why 'Lord Lovat's Lament,' or the 'Farewell to Gibraltar,' or the 'Heights of Alma'—why these bring the tears to a Highlander's eyes. The pibrochs preserve our legends for us," he went on to say, in rather an excited fashion, for he was obviously nervous, and perhaps a trifle paler than usual. "They remind us of what our families have done in all parts of the world, and there is not one you do not associate with some friend or relative who is gone away, or with some great merrymaking, or with the death of one who was dear to you. You never saw that—the boat taking the coffin across the loch, and the friends of the dead sitting with bowed heads, and the piper at the bow playing the slow Lament to the time of the oars. If you had seen that, you would know what the 'Cumhadh na Cloinne' is to a Highlander. And if you have a friend come to see you, what is it first tells you of his coming? When you can hear nothing for the waves, you can hear the pipes! And if you were going into a battle, what would put madness into your head but to hear the march that you know your brothers and uncles and cousins last heard when they marched on with a cheer to take death as it happened to come to them? You might as well wonder at the Highlanders loving the heather. That is not a very handsome flower."
Miss White was sitting quite calm and collected. A covert glance or two had convinced the major that she was entirely mistress of the situation. If there was any one nervous, embarrassed, excited, through this interview, it was not Miss Gertrude White.
"The other morning," she said, complacently, and she pulled down her dainty white cuffs another sixteenth of an inch, "I was going along Buckingham Palace Road, and I met a detachment—is a detachment right, Major Stuart?—of a Highland regiment. At least I supposed it was part of a Highland regiment, because they had eight pipers playing at their head; and I noticed that the cab horses were far more frightened than they would have been at twice the noise coming from an ordinary band. I was wondering whether they might think it the roar of some strange animal—you know how a camel frightens a horse. But I envied the officer who was riding in front of the soldiers. He was a very handsome man; and I thought how proud he must feel to be at the head of those fine, stalwart fellows. In fact, I felt for a moment that I should like to have command of a regiment myself."
"Faith," said the major, gallantly, "I would exchange into that regiment, if I had to serve as a drummer-boy."
Embarrassed by this broad compliment? Not a bit of it. She laughed lightly, and then rose to introduce the two visitors to her father, who had just entered the room.
It was not to be expected that Mr. White, knowing the errand of his guests, should give them an inordinately effusive welcome; but he was gravely polite. He prided himself on being a man of common-sense, and he knew it was no use fighting against the inevitable. If his daughter would leave the stage, she would; and there was some small compensation in the fact that by her doing so she would become Lady Macleod. He would have less money to spend on trinkets two hundred years old; but he would gain something—a very little no doubt—from the reflected lustre of her social position.
"We were talking about officers, papa," she said, brightly, "and I was about to confess that I have always had a great liking for soldiers. I know if I had been a man I should have been a soldier. But do you know, Sir Keith, you were once very rude to me about your friend Lieutenant Ogilvie?"
"I hope not," said he gravely.
"Oh yes, you were. Don't you remember the Caledonian Ball? I only remarked that Lieutenant Ogilvie, who seemed to me a bonnie boy, did not look as if he were a very formidable warrior; and you answered with some dark saying—what was it?—that nobody could tell what sword was in a scabbard until it was drawn?"
"Oh," said he, laughing somewhat nervously, "you forget: I was talking to the Duchess of Devonshire."
"And I am sure her Grace was much obliged to you for frightening her so," Miss White said, with a dainty smile.
Major Stuart was greatly pleased by the appearance and charming manner of this young lady. If Macleod, who was confessedly a handsome young fellow, had searched all over England, he could not have chosen a fitter mate. But he was also distinctly of opinion—judging by his one eye only—that nobody needed to be alarmed about this young lady's exceeding sensitiveness and embarrassment before strangers. He thought she would on all occasions be fairly capable of holding her own. And he was quite convinced, too, that the beautiful clear eyes, under the long lashes, pretty accurately divined what was going forward. But what did this impression of the honest soldier's amount to? Only, in other words, that Miss Gertrude White, although a pretty woman, was not a fool.
Luncheon was announced, and they went into the other room, accompanied by Miss Carry, who had suffered herself, to be introduced to Major Stuart with a certain proud sedateness. And now the major played the part of the accepted lover's friend to perfection. He sat next Miss White herself; and no matter what the talk was about, he managed to bring it round to something that redounded to Macleod's advantage. Macleod could do this, and Macleod could do that; it was all Macleod, and Macleod, and Macleod.
"And if you should ever come to our part of the world, Miss White," said the major—not letting his glance meet hers—"you will be able to understand something of the old loyalty and affection and devotion the people in the Highlands showed to their chiefs; for I don't believe there is a man, woman, or child about the place who would not rather have a hand cut off than that Macleod should have a thorn scratch him. And it is all the more singular, you know, that they are not Macleods. Mull is the country of the Macleans; and the Macleans and the Macleods had their fights in former times. There is a cave they will show you round the point from Ru na Gaul lighthouse that is called Uamh-na-Ceann—that is, the Cavern of the Skulls—where the Macleods murdered fifty of the Macleans, though Alastair Crotach, the humpbacked son of Macleod, was himself killed."
"I beg your pardon, Major Stuart," said Miss Carry, with a grand stateliness in her tone, "but will you allow me to ask if this is true? It is a passage I saw quoted in a book the other day, and I copied it out. It says something about the character of the people you are talking about."
She handed him the bit of paper; and he read these words: "Trew it is, that thir Ilandish men ar of nature verie prowd, suspicious, avaricious, full of decept and evill inventioun each aganis his nychtbour, be what way soever he may circumvin him. Besydis all this, they ar sa crewall in taking of revenge that nather have they regard to person, eage, tyme, or caus; sa ar they generallie all sa far addictit to thair awin ty rannicall opinions that, in all respects, they exceed in creweltie the maist barbarous people that ever hes bene sen the begynning of the warld."
"Upon my word," said the honest major, "it is a most formidable indictment. You had better ask Sir Keith about it."
He handed the paper across the table; Macleod read it, and burst out laughing.
"It is too true, Carry," said he. "We are a dreadful lot of people up there among the hills. Nothing but murder and rapine from morning till night."
"I was telling him this morning he would probably be hanged," observed the major, gravely.
"For what?" Miss White asked.
"Oh," said the major, carelessly, "I did not specify the offence. Cattle-lifting, probably."
Miss Carry's fierce onslaught was thus laughed away, and they proceeded to other matters; the major meanwhile not failing to remark that this luncheon differed considerably from the bread and cheese and glass of whiskey of a shooting-day in Mull. Then they returned to the drawing-room, and had tea there, and some further talk. The major had by this time quite abandoned his critical and observant attitude. He had succumbed to the enchantress. He was ready to declare that Gertrude White was the most fascinating woman he had ever met, while, as a matter of fact, she had been rather timidly making suggestions and asking his opinion all the time. And when they rose to leave, she said,—
"I am very sorry, Major Stuart, that this unfortunate accident should have altered your plans; but since you must remain in London, I hope we shall see you often before you go."
"You are very kind," said he.
"We cannot ask you to dine with us," she said, quite simply and frankly, "because of my engagements in the evening; but we are always at home at lunch-time, and Sir Keith knows the way."
"Thank you very much," said the major, as he warmly pressed her hand.
The two friends passed out into the street.
"My dear fellow," said the major, "you have been lucky—don't imagine I am humbugging you. A really handsome lass, and a thorough woman of the world, too—trained and fitted at every point; none of your farmyard beauties. But I say, Macleod—I say," he continued, solemnly, "won't she find it a trifle dull at Castle Dare?—the change, you know."
"It is not necessary that she should live at Dare," Macleod said.
"Oh, of course, you know your own plans best."
"I have none. All that is in the air as yet. And so you do not think I have make a mistake."
"I wish I was five-and-twenty, and could make a mistake like that," said the major, with a sigh.
Meanwhile Miss Carry had confronted her sister.
"So you have been inspected, Gerty. Do you think you passed muster?"
"Go away, and don't be impertinent, you silly girl!" said the other, good-naturedly.
Carry pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket, and, advancing, placed it on the table.
"There," said she, "put that in your purse, and don't tell me you have not been warned, Gertrude White."
The elder sister did as she was bid; but indeed she was not thinking at that moment of the cruel and revengeful character of the Western Highlanders, which Miss Carry's quotation set forth in such plain terms. She was thinking that she had never before seen Glenogie look so soldier-like and handsome.
AT A RAILWAY STATION.
The few days of grace obtained by the accident that happened to Major Stuart fled too quickly away, and the time came for saying farewell. With a dismal apprehension Macleod looked forward to this moment. He had seen her on the stage bid a pathetic good-by to her lover, and there it was beautiful enough—with her shy coquetries, and her winning ways, and the timid, reluctant confession of her love. But there was nothing at all beautiful about this ordeal through which he must pass. It was harsh and horrible. He trembled even as he thought of it.
The last day of his stay in London arrived; he rose with a sense of some awful doom hanging over him that he could in nowise shake off. It was a strange day, too—the world of London vaguely shining through a pale fog, the sun a globe of red fire. There was hoar-frost on the window-ledges; at last the winter seemed about to begin.
And then, as ill luck would have it, Miss White had some important business at the theatre to attend to, so that she could not see him till the afternoon; and he had to pass the empty morning somehow.
"You look like a man going to be hanged," said the major, about noon. "Come, shall we stroll down to the river now? We can have a chat with your friend before lunch, and a look over his boat."
Colonel Ross, being by chance at Erith, had heard of Macleod's being in town, and had immediately come up in his little steam-yacht, the Iris, which now lay at anchor close to Westminster Bridge, on the Lambeth side. He had proposed, merely for the oddity of the thing, that Macleod and his friend the major should lunch on board, and young Ogilvie had promised to run up from Aldershot.
"Macleod," said the gallant soldier, as the two friends walked leisurely down towards the Thames, "if you let this monomania get such a hold of you, do you know how it will end? You will begin to show signs of having a conscience."
"What do you mean?" said he, absently.
"Your nervous system will break down, and you will begin to have a conscience. That is a sure sign, in either a man or a nation. Man, don't I see it all around us now in this way of looking at India and the colonies! We had no conscience—we were in robust health as a nation—when we thrashed the French out of Canada, and seized India, and stole land just wherever we could put our fingers on it all over the globe; but now it is quite different; we are only educating these countries up to self-government; it is all in the interest of morality that we protect them; as soon as they wish to go we will give them our blessing—in short, we have got a conscience, because the national health is feeble and nervous. You look out, or you will get into the same condition. You will begin to ask whether it is right to shoot pretty little birds in order to eat them; you will become a vegetarian; and you will take to goloshes."
"Good gracious!" said Macleod, waking up, "what is all this about?"
"Rob Roy," observed the major, oracularly, "was a healthy man. I will make you a bet he was not much troubled by chilblains."
"Stuart," Macleod cried, "do you want to drive me mad? What on earth are you talking about?"
"Anything," the major confessed, frankly, "to rouse you out of your monomania, because I don't want to have my throat cut by a lunatic some night up at Castle Dare."
"Castle Dare," repeated Macleod, gloomily. "I think I shall scarcely know the place again; and we have been away about a fortnight!"
No sooner had they got down to the landing-step on the Lambeth side of the river than they were descried from the deck of the beautiful little steamer, and a boat was sent ashore for them. Colonel Ross was standing by the tiny gangway to receive them. They got on board, and passed into the glass-surrounded saloon. There certainly was something odd in the notion of being anchored in the middle of the great city—absolutely cut off from it, and enclosed in a miniature floating world, the very sound of it hushed and remote. And, indeed, on this strange morning the big town looked more dream-like than usual as they regarded it from the windows of this saloon—the buildings opal-like in the pale fog, a dusky glitter on the high towers of the Houses of Parliament, and some touches of rose red on the ripples of the yellow water around them.
Right over there was the very spot to which he had idly wandered in the clear dawn to have a look at the peacefully flowing stream. How long ago? It seemed to him, looking back, somehow the morning of life—shining clear and beautiful, before any sombre anxieties and joys scarcely less painful had come to cloud the fair sky. He thought of himself at that time with a sort of wonder. He saw himself standing there, glad to watch the pale and glowing glory of the dawn, careless as to what the day might bring forth; and he knew that it was another and an irrecoverable Macleod he was mentally regarding.
Well, when his friend Ogilvie arrived, he endeavored to assume some greater spirit and cheerfulness, and they had a pleasant enough luncheon party in the gently moving saloon. Thereafter Colonel Ross was for getting up steam and taking them for a run somewhere; but at this point Macleod begged to be excused for running away; and so, having consigned Major Stuart to the care of his host for the moment, and having bade good-by to Ogilvie, he went ashore. He made his way up to the cottage in South Bank. He entered the drawing-room and sat down, alone.
When she came in, she said, with a quick anxiety, "You are not ill?"
"No, no," he said rising, and his face was haggard somewhat; "but—but it is not pleasant to come to say good-by—"
"You must not take it so seriously as that," she said, with a friendly smile.
"My going away is like going into a grave," he said, slowly. "It is dark."
And then he took her two hands in his, and regarded her with such an intensity of look that she almost drew back, afraid.
"Sometimes," he said, watching her eyes, "I think I shall never see you again."
"Oh, Keith," said she, drawing her hands away, and speaking half playfully, "you really frighten me! And even if you were never to see me again, wouldn't it be a very good thing for you? You would have got rid of a bad bargain."
"It would not be a very good thing for me," he said, still regarding her.
"Oh, well, don't speak of it," said she, lightly; "let us speak of all that is to be done in the long time that must pass before we meet—"
"But why 'must?'" said he, eagerly—"why 'must?' If you knew how I looked forward to the blackness of this winter away up there—so far away from you that I shall forget the sound of your voice—oh! you cannot know what it is to me?"
He had sat down again, his eyes, with a sort of pained and hunted look in them, bent on the floor.
"But there is a 'must,' you know," she said, cheerfully, "and we ought to be sensible folk and recognize it. You know I ought to have a probationary period, as it were—like a nun, you know, just to see if she is fit to—"
Here Miss White paused, with a little embarrassment; but presently she charged the difficulty, and said, with a slight laugh,—
"To take the veil, in fact. You must give me time to become accustomed to a whole heap of things: if we were to do anything suddenly now, we might blunder into some great mistake, perhaps irretrievable. I must train myself by degrees for another kind of life altogether; and I am going to surprise you, Keith—I am indeed. If papa takes me to the Highlands next year, you won't recognize me at all. I am going to read up all about the Highlands, and learn the tartans, and the names of fishes and birds; and I will walk in the rain and try to think nothing about it; and perhaps I may learn a little Gaelic: indeed, Keith, when you see me in the Highlands, you will find me a thorough Highland-woman."
"You will never become a Highland-woman," he said, with a grave kindness. "Is it needful? I would rather see you as you are than playing a part."
Her eyes expressed some quick wonder, for he had almost quoted her father's words to her.
"You would rather see me as I am?" she said, demurely. "But what am I? I don't know myself."
"You are a beautiful and gentle-hearted Englishwoman," he said, with honest admiration—"a daughter of the South. Why should you wish to be anything else? When you come to us, I will show you a true Highland-woman—that is, my cousin Janet."
"Now you have spoiled all my ambition," she said, somewhat petulantly. "I had intended spending all the winter in training myself to forget the habits and feelings of an actress, and I was going to educate myself for another kind of life; and now I find that when I go to the Highlands you will compare me with your cousin Janet!"
"That is impossible," said he, absently, for he was thinking of the time when the summer seas would be blue again, and the winds soft, and the sky clear; and then he saw the white boat of the Umpire going merrily out to the great steamer to bring the beautiful stranger from the South to Castle Dare!
"Ah, well, I am not going to quarrel with you on this our last day together," she said, and she gently placed her soft white hand on the clinched fist that rested on the table. "I see you are in great trouble—I wish I could lessen it. And yet how could I wish that you could think of me less, even during the long winter evenings, when it will be so much more lonely for you than for me? But you must leave me my hobby all the same; and you must think of me always as preparing myself and looking forward; for at least you know you will expect me to be able to sing a Highland ballad to your friends."
"Yes, yes," he said, hastily, "if it is all true—if it is all possible—what you speak of. Sometimes I think it is madness of me to fling away my only chance; to have everything I care for in the world near me, and to go away and perhaps never return. Sometimes I know in my heart that I shall never see you again—never after this day."
"Ah, now," said she, brightly—for she feared this black demon getting possession of him again—"I will kill that superstition right off. You shall see me after to-day; for as sure as my name is Gertrude White, I will go up to the railway station to-morrow morning and see you off. There!"
"You will?" he said, with a flush of joy on his face.
"But I don't want any one else to see me," she said, looking down.
"Oh, I will manage that," he said, eagerly. "I will get Major Stuart into the carriage ten minutes before the train starts."
"He goes back to Erith to-night."
"And I will bring to the station," said she, with some shy color in her face, "a little present—if you should speak of me to your mother, you might give her this from me; it belonged to my mother."
Could anything have been more delicately devised than this tender and timid message?
"You have a woman's heart," he said.
And then in the same low voice she began to explain that she would like him to go to the theatre that evening, and that perhaps he would go alone; and would he do her the favor to be in a particular box? She took a piece of paper from her purse, and shyly handed it to him. How could he refuse?—though he flushed slightly. It was a favor she asked. "I will know where you are," she said.
And so he was not to bid good-by to her on this occasion, after all. But he bade good-by to Mr. White, and to Miss Carry, who was quite civil to him now that he was going away; and then he went out into the cold and gray December afternoon. They were lighting the lamps. But gaslight throws no cheerfulness on a grave.
He went to the theatre later on; and the talisman she had given him took him into a box almost level with the stage, and so near to it that the glare of the foot-lights bewildered his eyes, until he retired into the corner. And once more he saw the puppets come and go, with the one live woman among them whose every tone of voice made his heart leap. And then this drawing-room scene, in which she comes in alone, and talking to herself? She sits down to the piano carelessly. Some one enters unperceived, and stands silent there, to listen to the singing. And this air that she sings, waywardly, like a light-hearted schoolgirl:—
"Hi-ri-libhin o, Brae MacIntyre, Hi-ri-libhin o, Costly thy wooing! Thou'st slain the maid. Hug-o-rin-o, 'Tis thy undoing! Hi-ri-libhin o, Friends of my love, Hi-ri-libhin o, Do not upbraid him; He was leal Hug-o-rin-o, Chance betrayed him."
Macleod's breathing came quick and hard. She had not sung the ballad of the brave MacIntyre when formerly he had seen the piece. Did she merely wish him to know, by this arch rendering of the gloomy song, that she was pursuing her Highland studies? And then the last verse she sang in the Gaelic! He was so near that he could hear this adjuration to the unhappy lover to seek his boat and fly, steering wide of Jura and avoiding Mull:—
"Hi-ri-libhin o, Buin Bata, Hi-ri-libhin o, Fag an dathaich, Seachain Mule, Hug-o-ri-no; Sna taodh Jura!"
Was she laughing, then, at her pronunciation of the Gaelic when she carelessly rose from the piano, and, in doing so, directed one glance to him that made him quail? The foolish piece went on. She was more bright, vivacious, coquettish than ever: how could she have such spirits in view of the long separation that lay on his heart like lead? Then, at the end of the piece, there was a tapping at the door, and an envelope was handed in to him. It only contained a card, with the message "Good-night?" scrawled in pencil. It was the last time he ever was in any theatre.
Then that next morning—cold and raw and damp, with a blustering northwest wind that seemed to bring an angry summons from the far seas. At the station his hand was trembling like the hand of a drunken man; his eyes wild and troubled: his face haggard. And as the moment arrived for the train to start, he became more and more excited.
"Come and take your place, Macleod," the major said. "There is no use worrying about leaving. We have eaten our cake. The frolic is at an end. All we can do is to sing, 'Then fare you well, my Mary Blane,' and put up with whatever is ahead. If I could only have a drop of real, genuine Talisker to steady my nerves—"
But here the major, who had been incidentally leaning out of the window, caught sight of a figure, and instantly he withdrew his head. Macleod disappeared.
That great, gaunt room—with the hollow footfalls of strangers, and the cries outside. His face was quite white when he took her hand.
"I am very late," she said, with a smile.
He could not speak at all. He fixed his eyes on hers with a strange intensity, as if he would read her very soul; and what could any one find there but a great gentleness and sincerity, and the frank confidence of one who had nothing to conceal?
"Gertrude," said he at last, "whatever happens to us two, you will never forget that I loved you?"
"I think I may be sure of that," she said, looking down.
They rang a bell outside.
He tightly grasped the hand he held; once more he gazed into those clear and confiding eyes—with an almost piteously anxious look: then he kissed her and hurried away. But she was bold enough to follow. Her eyes were very moist. Her heart was beating fast. If Glenogie had there and then challenged her, and said, "Come, then, sweetheart; will you fly with me? And the proud mother will meet you. And the gentle cousin will attend on you. And Castle Dare will welcome the young bride!"—what would she have said? The moment was over. She only saw the train go gently away from the station; and she saw the piteous eyes fixed on hers; and while he was in sight she waved her handkerchief. When the train had disappeared she turned away with a sigh.
"Poor fellow," she was thinking to herself, "he is very much in earnest—far more in earnest than even poor Howson. It would break my heart if I were to bring him any trouble."
By the time she had got to the end of the platform, her thoughts had taken a more cheerful turn.
"Dear me," she was saying to herself, "I quite forgot to ask him whether my Gaelic was good!"
When she had got into the street outside, the day was brightening.
"I wonder," she was asking herself, "whether Carry would come and look at that exhibition of water-colors; and what would the cab fare be?"
And now he was all eagerness to brave the first dragon in his way—the certain opposition of this proud old lady at Castle Dare. No doubt she would stand aghast at the mere mention of such a thing; perhaps in her sudden indignation she might utter sharp words that would rankle afterwards in the memory. In any case he knew the struggle would be long, and bitter, and harassing; and he had not the skill of speech to persuasively bend a woman's will. There was another way—impossible, alas!—he had thought of. If only he could have taken Gertrude White by the hand—if only he could have led her up the hall, and presented her to his mother, and said, "Mother, this is your daughter; is she not fit to be the daughter of so proud a mother?"—the fight would have been over. How could any one withstand the appeal of those fearless and tender clear eyes?
Impatiently he waited for the end of dinner on the evening of his arrival; impatiently he heard Donald the piper lad, play the brave Salute—the wild, shrill yell overcoming the low thunder of the Atlantic outside, and he paid but little attention to the old and familiar Cumhadh na Cloinne. Then Hamish put the whiskey and the claret on the table, and withdrew. They were left alone.
"And now, Keith," said his cousin Janet, with the wise gray eyes grown cheerful and kind, "you will tell us about all the people you saw in London; and was there much gayety going on? And did you see the Queen at all? and did you give any fine dinners?"
"How can I answer you all at once, Janet?" said he, laughing in a somewhat nervous way. "I did not see the Queen, for she was at Windsor; and I did not give any fine dinners, for it is not the time of year in London to give fine dinners; and indeed I spent enough money in that way when I was in London before. But I saw several of the friends who were very kind to me when I was in London in the summer. And do you remember, Janet, my speaking to you about the beautiful young lady—the actress I met at the house of Colonel Ross of Duntorme?"
"Oh yes, I remember very well."
"Because," said he—and his fingers were rather nervous as he took out a package from his breast-pocket—"I have got some photographs of her for the mother and you to see. But it is little of any one that you can understand from photographs. You would have to hear her talk, and see her manner, before you could understand why every one speaks so well of her, and why she is a friend with every one—"
He had handed the packet to his mother, and the old lady had adjusted her eye-glasses, and was turning over the various photographs.
"She is very good-looking," said Lady Macleod. "Oh yes, she is very good-looking. And that is her sister?"
Janet was looking over them too.
"But where did you get all the photographs of her Keith?" she said. "They are from all sorts of places—Scarborough, Newcastle, Brighton—"
"I got them from herself," said he.
"Oh do you know her so well?"
"I know her very well. She was the most intimate friend of the people whose acquaintance I first made in London," he said, simply, and then he turned to his mother; "I wish photographs could speak, mother, for then you might make her acquaintance; and as she is coming to the Highlands next year—"
"We have no theatre in Mull, Keith," Lady Macleod said, with a smile.
"But by that time she will not be an actress at all: did I not tell you that before?" he said, eagerly. "Did I not tell you that? She is going to leave the stage—perhaps sooner or later, but certainly by that time; and when she comes to the Highlands next year with her father, she will be travelling just like any one else. And I hope, mother, you won't let them think that we Highlanders are less hospitable than the people of London."
He made the suggestion in an apparently careless fashion, but there was a painfully anxious look in his eyes. Janet noticed that.
"It would be strange if they were to come to so unfrequented a place as the west of Mull," said Lady Macleod, somewhat coldly, as she put the photographs aside.
"But I have told them all about the place, and what they will see, and they are eagerly looking forward to it; and you surely would not have them put up at the inn at Bunessan, mother?"
"Really, Keith, I think you have been imprudent. It was little matter our receiving a bachelor friend like Norman Ogilvie, but I don't think we are quite in a condition to entertain strangers at Dare."
"No one objected to me as a stranger when I went to London," said he, proudly.
"If they are anywhere in the neighborhood," said Lady Macleod, "I should be pleased to show them all the attention in my power, as you say they were friendly with you in London; but really, Keith, I don't think you can ask me to invite two strangers to Dare—"
"Then it is to the inn at Bunessan they must go?" he asked.
"Now, auntie," said Janet Macleod, with a gentle voice, "you are not going to put poor Keith into a fix; I know you won't do that. I see the whole thing; it is all because Keith was so thorough a Highlander. They were talking about Scotland: and no doubt he said there was nothing in the country to be compared with our islands, and caves, and cliffs. And then they spoke of coming, and of course he threw open the doors of the house to them. He would not have been a Highlander if he had done anything else, auntie; and I know you won't be the one to make him break off an invitation. And if we cannot give them grand entertainments at Dare, we can give them a Highland welcome, anyway."
This appeal to the Highland pride of the mother was not to be withstood.
"Very well, Keith," said she. "We shall do what we can for your friends, though it isn't much in this old place."
"She will not look at it that way," he said, eagerly, "I know that. She will be proud to meet you, mother, and to shake hands with you, and to go about with you, and do just whatever you are doing—"
Lady Macleod started.
"How long do you propose this visit should last?" she said.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, hastily. "But you know, mother, you would not hurry your guests; for I am sure you would be as proud as any one to show them that we had things worth seeing. We should take her to the cathedral at Iona on some moonlight night; and then some day we could go out to the Dubh Artach lighthouse—and you know how the men are delighted to see a new face—"
"You would never think of that, Keith," his cousin said. "Do you think a London young lady would have the courage to be swung on to the rocks and to climb up all those steps outside?"
"She has the courage for that or for anything," said he. "And then, you know, she would be greatly interested in the clouds of puffins and the skarts behind Staffa, and we would take her to the great caves in the cliffs at Gribun; and I have no doubt she would like to go out to one of the uninhabited islands."
Lady Macleod had preserved a stern silence. When she had so far yielded as to promise to ask those two strangers to come to Castle Dare on their round of the Western Islands, she had taken it for granted that their visit would necessarily be of the briefest; but the projects of which Keith Macleod now spoke seemed to suggest something like a summer passed at Dare. And he went on talking in this strain, nervously delighted with the pictures that each promised excursion called up. Miss White would be charmed with this, and delighted with that. Janet would find her so pleasant a companion; the mother would be inclined to pet her at first sight.
"She is already anxious to make your acquaintance mother," said he to the proud old dame who sat there ominously silent. "And she could think of no other message to send you than this—it belonged to her mother."
He opened the little package—of old lace, or something of that kind—and handed it to his mother; and at the same time, his impetuosity carrying him on, he said that perhaps, the mother would write now and propose the visit in the summer.
At this Lady Macleod's surprise overcame her reserve.
"You must be mad, Keith! To write in the middle of winter and send an invitation for the summer! And really the whole thing is so extraordinary—a present coming to me from an absolute stranger—- and that stranger an actress who is quite unknown to any one I know—"
"Mother, mother," he cried, "don't say any more. She has promised to be my wife."
Lady Macleod stared at him as if to see whether he had really gone mad, and rose and pushed back her chair.
"Keith," she said, slowly and with a cold dignity, "when you choose a wife, I hope I will be the first to welcome her, and I shall be proud to see you with a wife worthy of the name that you bear; but in the meantime I do not think that such a subject should be made the occasion of a foolish jest."
And with that she left the apartment, and Keith Macleod turned in a bewildered sort of fashion to his cousin. Janet Macleod had risen too; she was regarding him with anxious and troubled and tender eyes.
"Janet," said he, "it is no jest at all!"
"I know that," said she, in a low voice, and her face was somewhat pale. "I have known that. I knew it before you went away to England this last time."
And suddenly she went over to him and bravely held out her hand; and there were quick tears in the beautiful gray eyes.
"Keith," said she, "there is no one will be more proud to see you happy than I; and I will do what I can for you now, if you will let me, for I see your whole heart is set on it; and how can I doubt that you have chosen a good wife?"
"Oh Janet, if you could only see her and know her!"
She turned aside for a moment—only for a moment. When he next saw her face she was quite gay.
"You must know, Keith," said she, with a smile shining through the tears of the friendly eyes, "that women-folk are very jealous; and all of a sudden you come to auntie and me, and tell us that a stranger has taken away your heart from us and from Dare; and you must expect us to be angry and resentful just a little bit at first."
"I never could expect that from you, Janet," said he. "I knew that was impossible from you."
"As for auntie, then," she said, warmly, "is it not natural that she should be surprised and perhaps offended—"
"But she says she does not believe it—that I am making a joke of it—"
"That is only her way of protesting, you know," said the wise cousin. "And you must expect her to be angry and obdurate, because women have their prejudices, you know, Keith; and this young lady—well, it is a pity she is not known to some one auntie knows."
"She is known to Norman Ogilvie, and to dozens of Norman Ogilvie's friends, and Major Stuart has seen her," said he, quickly; and then he drew back. "But that is nothing. I do not choose to have any one to vouch for her."
"I know that; I understand that, Keith," Janet Macleod said, gently. "It is enough for me that you have chosen her to be your wife; I know you would choose a good woman to be your wife; and it will be enough for your mother when she comes to reflect. But you must be patient."
"Patient I would be, if it concerned myself alone," said he; "but the reflection—the insult of the doubt—"
"Now, now, Keith," said she, "don't let the hot blood of the Macleods get the better of you. You must be patient, and considerate. If you will sit down now quietly, and tell me all about the young lady, I will be your ambassador, if you like; and I think I will be able to persuade auntie."
"I wonder if there ever was any woman as kind as you are, Janet?" said he, looking at her with a sort of wondering admiration.
"You must not say that any more now," she said, with a smile. "You must consider the young lady you have chosen as perfection in all things. And this is a small matter. If auntie is difficult to persuade, and should protest, and so forth, what she says will not hurt me, whereas it might hurt you very sorely. And now you will tell me all about the young lady, for I must have my hands full of arguments when I go to your mother."
And so this Court of Inquiry was formed, with one witness not altogether unprejudiced in giving his evidence, and with a judge ready to become the accomplice of the witness at any point. Somehow Macleod avoided speaking of Gertrude White's appearance. Janet was rather a plain woman, despite those tender Celtic eyes. He spoke rather of her filial duty and her sisterly affection; he minutely described her qualities as a house-mistress; and he was enthusiastic about the heroism she had shown in determining to throw aside the glittering triumphs of her calling to live a simpler and wholesomer life. That passage in the career of Miss Gertrude White somewhat puzzled Janet Macleod. If it were the case that the ambitions and jealousies and simulated emotions of a life devoted to art had a demoralizing and degrading effect on the character, why had not the young lady made the discovery a little earlier? What was the reason of her very sudden conversion? It was no doubt very noble on her part, if she really were convinced that this continual stirring up of sentiment without leading to practical issues had an unwholesome influence on her woman's nature, to voluntarily surrender all the intoxication of success, with its praises and flatteries. But why was the change in her opinion so sudden? According to Macleod's own account, Miss Gertrude White, when he first went up to London, was wholly given over to the ambition of succeeding in her profession. She was then the "white slave." She made no protest against the repeatedly announced theories of her father to the effect that an artist ceased to live for himself or herself, and became merely a medium for the expression of the emotions of others. Perhaps the gentle cousin Janet would have had a clearer view of the whole case if she had known that Miss Gertrude White's awakening doubts as to the wholesomeness of simulated emotions on the human soul were strictly coincident in point of time with her conviction that at any moment she pleased she might call herself Lady Macleod.
With all the art he knew he described the beautiful small courtesies and tender ways of the little household at Rose Bank; and he made it appear that this young lady, brought up amidst the sweet observances of the South, was making an enormous sacrifice in offering to brave, for his sake, the transference to the harder and harsher ways of the North.
"And, you know, Keith, she speaks a good deal for her self," Janet Macleod said, turning over the photographs and looking at them perhaps a little wistfully. "It is a pretty face. It must make many friends for her. If she were here herself now, I don't think auntie would hold out for a moment."
"That is what I know," said he, eagerly. "That is why I am anxious she should come here. And if it were only possible to bring her now, there would be no more trouble; and I think we could get her to leave the stage—at least I would try. But how could we ask her to Dare in the winter time? The sea and the rain would frighten her, and she would never consent to live here. And perhaps she needs time to quite make up her mind. She said she would educate herself all the winter through, and that, when I saw her again, she would be a thorough Highland woman. That shows you how willing she is to make any sacrifice if she thinks it right."
"But if she is convinced," said Janet, doubtfully, "that she ought to leave the stage, why does she not do so at once? You say her father has enough money to support the family?"
"Oh yes, he has," said Macleod; and then he added, with some hesitation, "well, Janet, I did not like to press that. She has already granted so much. But I might ask her."
At this moment Lady Macleod's maid came into the hall and said that her mistress wished to see Miss Macleod.
"Perhaps auntie thinks I am conspiring with you Keith," she said, laughing, when the girl had gone. "Well, you will leave the whole thing in my hands, and I will do what I can. And be patient and reasonable, Keith, even if your mother won't hear of it for a day or two. We women are very prejudiced against each other, you know; and we have quick tempers, and we want a little coaxing and persuasion—that is all."
"You have always been a good friend to me, Janet," he said.
"And I hope it will all turn out for your happiness, Keith," she said, gently, as she left.
But as for Lady Macleod, when Janet reached her room, the haughty old dame was "neither to hold nor to bind." There was nothing she would not have done for this favorite son of hers but this one thing. Give her consent to such a marriage? The ghosts of all the Macleods of Dare would call shame on her!
"Oh, auntie," said the patient Janet, "he has been a good son to you; and you must have known he would marry some day."
"Marry?" said the old lady, and she turned a quick eye on Janet herself. "I was anxious to see him married; and when he was choosing a wife I think he might have looked nearer home, Janet."
"What a wild night it is!" said Janet Macleod quickly, and she went for a moment to the window. "The Dunara will be coming round the Mull of Cantire just about now. And where is the present, auntie, that the young lady sent you? You must write and thank her for that, at all events; and shall I write the letter for you in the morning?"
Lady Macleod remained obdurate; Janet went about the house with a sad look on her face; and Macleod, tired of the formal courtesy that governed the relations between his mother and himself, spent most of his time in snipe and duck shooting about the islands—braving the wild winds and wilder seas in a great, open lugsailed boat, the Umpire having long been sent to her winter-quarters. But the harsh, rough life had its compensations. Letters came from the South—treasures to be pored over night after night with an increasing wonder and admiration. Miss Gertrude White was a charming letter-writer; and now there was no restraint at all over her frank confessions and playful humors. Her letters were a prolonged chat—bright, rambling, merry, thoughtful, just as the mood occurred. She told him of her small adventures and the incidents of her everyday life, so that he could delight himself with vivid pictures of herself and her surroundings. And again and again she hinted rather than said that she was continually thinking of the Highlands, and of the great change in store for her.
"Yesterday morning," she wrote, "I was going down the Edgeware Road, and whom should I see but two small boys, dressed as young Highlanders, staring into the window of a toy-shop. Stalwart young fellows they were, with ruddy complexions and brown legs, and their Glengarries coquettishly placed on the side of their head; and I could see at once that their plain kilt was no holiday dress. How could I help speaking to them? I thought perhaps they had come from Mull. And so I went up to them and asked if they would let me buy a toy for each of them. 'We dot money,' says the younger, with a bold stare at my impertinence. 'But you can't refuse to accept a present from a lady?' I said. 'Oh no, ma am,' said the elder boy, and he politely raised his cap; and the accent of his speech—well, it made my heart jump. But I was very nearly disappointed when I got them into the shop; for I asked what their name was; and they answered 'Lavender.' 'Why, surely, that is not a Highland, name,' I said. 'No, ma'am,' said the elder lad; 'but my mamma is from the Highlands, and we are from the Highlands, and we are going back to spend the New-year at home.' 'And where is your home?' I asked; but I have forgotten the name of the place; I understood it was somewhere away in the North. And then I asked them if they had ever been to Mull. 'We have passed it in the Clansman' said the elder boy. 'And do you know one Sir Keith Macleod there?' I asked. 'Oh no, ma'am,' said he, staring at me with his clear blue eyes as if I was a very stupid person, 'The Macleods are from Skye.' 'But surely one of them may live in Mull,' I suggested. 'The Macleods are from Skye,' he maintained, 'and my papa was at Dunvegan last year.' Then came the business of choosing the toys; and the smaller child would have a boat, though his elder brother laughed at him, and said something about a former boat of his having been blown out into Loch Rogue—which seemed to me a strange name for even a Highland loch. But the elder lad, he must needs have a sword; and when I asked him what he wanted that for, he said, quite proudly, 'To kill the Frenchmen with.' 'To kill Frenchmen with?' I said; for this young fire-eater seemed to mean what he said. 'Yes, ma'am,' said he, 'for they shoot the sheep out on the Flannan Islands when no one sees them; but we will catch them some day.' I was afraid to ask him where the Flannan Islands were, for I could see he was already regarding me as a very ignorant person; so I had their toys tied up for them, and packed them off home. 'And when you get home,' I said to them, 'you will give my compliments to your mamma, and say that you got the ship and the sword from a lady who has a great liking for the Highland people.' 'Yes, ma'am,' says he, touching his cap again with a proud politeness; and then they went their ways, and I saw them no more."
Then the Christmas-time came, with all its mystery, and friendly observances, and associations; and she described to him how Carry and she were engaged in decorating certain schools in which they were interested, and how a young curate had paid her a great deal of attention, until some one went and told him, as a cruel joke, that Miss White was a celebrated dancer at a music-hall.
Then, on Christmas morning, behold, the very first snow of the year! She got up early; she went out alone; the holiday world of London was not yet awake.
"I never in my life saw anything more beautiful," she wrote to him, "than Regent's Park this morning, in a pale fog, with just a sprinkling of snow on the green of the grass, and one great yellow mansion shining through the mist—the sunlight on it—like some magnificent distant palace. And I said to myself, if I were a poet or a painter I would take the common things, and show people the wonder and the beauty of them; for I believe the sense of wonder is a sort of light that shines in the soul of the artist; and the least bit of the 'denying spirit'—the utterance of the word connu—snuffs it out at once. But then, dear Keith, I caught myself asking what I had to do with all these dreams, and these theories that papa would like to have talked about. What had I to do with art? And then I grew miserable. Perhaps the loneliness of the park, with only those robust, hurrying strangers crossing, blowing their fingers, and pulling their cravats closer, had affected me; or perhaps it was that I suddenly found how helpless I am by myself. I want a sustaining hand, Keith; and that is now far away from me. I can do anything with myself of set purpose, but it doesn't last. If you remind me that one ought generously to overlook the faults of others—I generously overlook the faults of others—for five minutes. If you remind me that to harbor jealousy and envy is mean and contemptible, I make an effort, and throw out all jealous and envious thoughts—for five minutes. And so you see I got discontented with myself; and I hated two men who were calling loud jokes at each other as they parted different ways; and I marched home through the fog, feeling rather inclined to quarrel with somebody. By the way, did you ever notice that you often can detect the relationship between people by their similar mode of walking, and that more easily than by any likeness of face? As I strolled home, I could tell which of the couples of men walking before me were brothers by the similar bending of the knee and the similar gait, even when their features were quite unlike. There was one man whose fashion of walking was really very droll; his right knee gave a sort of preliminary shake as if it was uncertain which way the foot wanted to go. For the life of me I could not help imitating him; and then I wondered what his face would be like if he were suddenly to turn round and catch me."
That still dream of Regent's Park in sunlight and snow he carried about with him as a vision—a picture—even amidst the blustering westerly winds, and the riven seas that sprung over the rocks and swelled and roared away into the caves of Gribun and Bourg. There was no snow as yet up here at Dare, but wild tempests shaking the house to its foundations, and brief gleams of stormy sunlight lighting up the gray spindrift as it was whirled shoreward from the breaking seas; and then days of slow and mournful rain, with Staffa, and Lunga, and the Dutchman become mere dull patches of blurred purple—when they were visible at all—on the leaden-hued and coldly rushing Atlantic.
"I have passed through the gates of the Palace of Art," she wrote, two days later, from the calmer and sunnier South; "and I have entered its mysterious halls, and I have breathed for a time the hushed atmosphere of wonderland. Do you remember meeting a Mr. Lemuel at any time at Mrs. Ross's—a man with a strange, gray, tired face, and large, wan, blue eyes, and an air as if he were walking in a dream? Perhaps not; but, at all events, he is a great painter, who never exhibits to the vulgar crowd, but who is worshipped by a select circle of devotees; and his house is a temple dedicated to high art, and only profound believers are allowed to cross the threshold. Oh dear me! I am not a believer; but how can I help that? Mr. Lemuel is a friend of papa's, however; they have mysterious talks over milk-jugs of colored stone, and small pictures with gilt skies, and angels in red and blue. Well, yesterday he called on papa, and requested his permission to ask me to sit—or, rather, stand—for the heroine of his next great work, which is to be an allegorical one, taken from the 'Faery Queen' or the 'Morte d'Arthur,' or some such book. I protested; it was no use. 'Good gracious, papa,' I said, 'do you know what he will make of me? He will give me a dirty brown face, and I shall wear a dirty green dress; and no doubt I shall be standing beside a pool of dirty blue water, with a purple sky overhead, and a white moon in it. The chances are he will dislocate my neck, and give me gaunt cheeks like a corpse, with a serpent under my foot, or a flaming dragon stretching his jaws behind my back.' Papa was deeply shocked at my levity. Was it for me, an artist (bless the mark!), to baulk the high aims of art? Besides it was vaguely hinted that, to reward me, certain afternoon-parties were to be got up; and then, when I had got out of Merlin-land, and assured myself I was human by eating lunch, I was to meet a goodly company of distinguished folk—great poets, and one or two more mystic painters, a dilettante duke, and the nameless crowd of worshippers who would come to sit at the feet of all these, and sigh adoringly, and shake their heads over the Philistinism of English society. I don't care for ugly mediaeval maidens myself, nor for allegorical serpents, nor for bloodless men with hollow cheeks, supposed to represent soldierly valor; if I were an artist, I would rather show people the beauty of a common brick wall when the red winter sunset shines along it. But perhaps that is only my ignorance, and I may learn better before Mr. Lemuel has done with me."
When Macleod first read this passage, a dark expression came over his face. He did not like this new project.
"And so, yesterday afternoon," the letter continued, "papa and I went to Mr. Lemuel's house, which is only a short way from here; and we entered, and found ourselves in a large circular and domed hall, pretty nearly dark, and with a number of closed doors. It was all hushed, and mysterious, and dim; but there was a little more light when the man opened one of these doors and showed us into a chamber—or, rather, one of a series of chambers—that seemed to me at first like a big child's toy-house, all painted and gilded with red and gold. It was bewilderingly full of objects that had no ostensible purpose. You could not tell whether any one of these rooms was dining-room, or drawing-room, or anything else; it was all a museum of wonderful cabinets filled with different sorts of ware, and trays of uncut precious stones, and Eastern jewelry, and what not; and then you discovered that in the panels of the cabinets were painted series of allegorical heads on a gold background; and then perhaps you stumbled on a painted glass window where no window should be. It was a splendid blaze of color, no doubt. One began to dream of Byzantine emperors, and Moorish conquerors, and Constantinople gilt domes. But then—mark the dramatic effect!—away in the blaze of the farther chamber appears a solemn, slim, bowed figure, dressed all in black—the black velvet coat seemed even blacker than black—and the mournful-eyed man approached, and he gazed upon us a grave welcome from the pleading, affected, tired eyes. He had a slight cough, too, which I rather fancied was assumed for the occasion. Then we all sat down, and he talked to us in a low, sad, monotonous voice; and there was a smell of frankincense about—no doubt a band of worshippers had lately been visiting at the shrine; and, at papa's request, he showed me some of his trays of jewels with a wearied air. And some drawings of Botticelli that papa had been speaking about; would he look at them now? Oh, dear Keith, the wickedness of the human imagination! as he went about in this limp and languid fashion, in the hushed room, with the old-fashioned scent in the air, I wished I was a street boy. I wished I could get close behind him, and give a sudden yell! Would he fly into bits? Would he be so startled into naturalness as to swear? And all the time that papa and he talked, I dared scarcely lift my eyes; for I could not but think of the effect of that wild 'Hi!' And what if I had burst into a fit of laughter without any apparent cause?"
Apparently Miss White had not been much impressed by her visit to Mr. Lemuel's palace of art, and she made thereafter but slight mention of it, though she had been prevailed upon to let the artist borrow the expression of her face for his forthcoming picture. She had other things to think about now, when she wrote to Castle Dare.
For one day Lady Macleod went into her son's room and said to him, "Here is a letter, Keith, which I have written to Miss White. I wish you to read it."
He jumped to his feet, and hastily ran his eyes over the letter. It was a trifle formal, it is true; but it was kind, and it expressed the hope that Miss White and her father would next summer visit Castle Dare. The young man threw his arms round his mother's neck and kissed her. "That is like a good mother," said he. "Do you know how happy she will be when she receives this message from you?"
Lady Macleod left him the letter to address. He read it over carefully; and though he saw that the handwriting was the handwriting of his mother, he knew that the spirit that had prompted these words was that of the gentle cousin Janet.
This concession had almost been forced from the old lady by the patience and mild persistence of Janet Macleod; but if anything could have assured her that she had acted properly in yielding, it was the answer which Miss Gertrude White sent in return. Miss White wrote that letter several times over before sending it off, and it was a clever piece of composition. The timid expressions of gratitude; the hints of the writer's sympathy with the romance of the Highlands and the Highland character; the deference shown by youth to age; and here and there just the smallest glimpse of humor, to show that Miss White, though very humble and respectful and all that, was not a mere fool. Lady Macleod was pleased by this letter. She showed it to her son one night at dinner. "It is a pretty hand," she remarked, critically.
Keith Macleod read it with a proud heart. "Can you not gather what kind of woman she is from that letter alone?" he said, eagerly. "I can almost hear her talk in it. Janet, will you read it too?"
Janet Macleod took the small sheet of perfumed paper and read it calmly, and handed it back to her aunt. "It is a nice letter," said she. "We must try to make Dare as bright as maybe when she comes to see us, that she will not go back to England with a bad account of the Highland people." That was all that was said at the time about the promised visit of Miss Gertrude White to Castle Dare. It was only as a visitor that Lady Macleod had consented to receive her. There was no word mentioned on either side of anything further than that. Mr. White and his daughter were to be in the Highlands next summer; they would be in the neighborhood of Castle Dare; Lady Macleod would be glad to entertain them for a time, and make the acquaintance of two of her son's friends. At all events, the proud old lady would be able to see what sort of woman this was whom Keith Macleod had chosen to be his wife.
And so the winter days and nights and weeks dragged slowly by; but always, from time to time, came those merry and tender and playful letters from the South, which he listened to rather than read. It was her very voice that was speaking to him, and in imagination he went about with her. He strolled with her over the crisp grass, whitened with hoar-frost, of the Regent's Park; he hurried home with her in the chill gray afternoons—the yellow gas-lamps being lit—to the little tea-table. When she visited a picture gallery, she sent him a full report of that, even.
"Why is it," she asked, "that one is so delighted to look a long distance, even when the view is quite uninteresting? I wonder if that is why I greatly prefer landscapes to figure subjects. The latter always seem to me to be painted from models just come from the Hampstead Road. There was scarcely a sea-piece in the exhibition that was not spoiled by figures, put in for the sake of picturesqueness, I suppose. Why, when you are by the sea you want to be alone, surely! Ah, if I could only have a look at those winter seas you speak of!"
He did not echo that wish at all. Even as he read he could hear the thunderous booming of the breakers into the giant caves. Was it for a pale rose-leaf to brave that fell wind that tore the waves into spindrift, and howled through the lonely chasms of Ben-an-Sloich?
To one of these precious documents, written in the small, neat hand on pink-toned and perfumed paper, a postscript was added: "If you keep my letters," she wrote, and he laughed when he saw that if, "I wish you would go back to the one in which I told you of papa and me calling at Mr. Lemuel's house, and I wish, dear Keith, you would burn it. I am sure it was very cruel and unjust. One often makes the mistake of thinking people affected when there is no affectation about them. And if a man has injured his health and made an invalid of himself, through his intense and constant devotion to his work, surely that is not anything to be laughed at? Whatever Mr. Lemuel may be, he is, at all events, desperately in earnest. The passion that he has for his art, and his patience and concentration and self-sacrifice, seems to me to be nothing less than noble. And so, dear Keith, will you please to burn that impertinent letter?"
Macleod sought out the letter and carefully read it over. He came to the conclusion that he could see no just reason for complying with her demand. Frequently first impressions are best.
In the by-gone days, this eager, active, stout-limbed young fellow had met the hardest winter with a glad heart. He rejoiced in its thousand various pursuits; he set his teeth against the driving hail; he laughed at the drenching spray that sprung high over the bows of his boat; and what harm ever came to him if he took the short-cut across the upper reaches of Loch Scridain, wading waist-deep through a mile of sea-water on a bitter January day? And where was the loneliness of his life when always, wherever he went by sea or shore, he had these old friends around him—the red-beaked sea-pyots whirring along the rocks; and the startled curlews, whistling their warning note across the sea; and the shy duck swimming far out on the smooth lochs; to say nothing of the black game that would scarcely move from their perch on the larch-trees as he approached, and the deer that were more distinctly visible on the far heights of Ben-an-Sloich when a slight sprinkling of snow had fallen?
But now all this was changed. The awfulness of the dark winter-time amidst those Northern seas overshadowed him. "It is like going into a grave," he had said to her. And, with all his passionate longing to see her and have speech of her once more, how could he dare to ask her to approach these dismal solitudes? Sometimes he tried to picture her coming, and to read in imagination the look on her face. See now!—how she clings terrified to the side of the big open packet-boat that crosses the Frith of Lorn, and she dares not look abroad on the howling waste of waves. The mountains of Mull rise sad and cold and distant before her; there is no bright glint of sunshine to herald her approach. This small dog-cart, now: it is a frail thing with which to plunge into the wild valleys, for surely a gust of wind might whirl into the chasm of roaring waters below Glen-More: who that has ever seen Glen-More on a lowering January day will ever forget it—its silence, its loneliness, its vast and lifeless gloom? Her face is pale now; she sits speechless and awestricken; for the mountain-walls that overhang this sombre ravine seem ready to fall on her, and there is an awful darkness spreading along their summits under the heavy swathes of cloud. And then those black lakes far down in the lone hollows, more death-like and terrible than any tourist-haunted Loch Coruisk: would she not turn to him and, with trembling hands, implore him to take her back and away to the more familiar and bearable South? He began to see all these things with her eyes. He began to fear the awful things of the winter-time and the seas. The glad heart had gone out of him.
Even the beautiful aspects of the Highland winter had something about them—an isolation, a terrible silence—that he grew almost to dread. What was this strange thing, for example? Early in the morning he looked from the windows of his room, and he could have imagined he was not at Dare at all. All the familiar objects of sea and shore had disappeared; this was a new world—a world of fantastic shapes, all moving and unknown—a world of vague masses of gray, though here and there a gleam of lemon-color shining through the fog showed that the dawn was reflected on a glassy sea. Then he began to make out the things around him. That great range of purple mountains was Ulva—Ulva transfigured and become Alpine! Then those wan gleams of yellow light on the sea?—he went to the other window, and behold! the heavy bands of cloud that lay across the unseen peaks of Ben-an-Sloich had parted, and there was a blaze of clear, metallic, green sky; and the clouds bordering on that gleam of light were touched with a smoky and stormy saffron-hue that flashed and changed amidst the seething and twisting shapes of the fog and the mist. He turned to the sea again—what phantom-ship was this that appeared in mid-air, and apparently moving when there was no wind? He heard the sound of oars; the huge vessel turned out to be only the boat of the Gometra men going out to the lobster-traps. The yellow light on the glassy plain waxes stronger; new objects appear through the shifting fog; until at last a sudden opening shows him a wonderful thing far away—apparently at the very confines of the world—and awful in its solitary splendor. For that is the distant island of Staffa, and it has caught the colors of the dawn; and amidst the cold grays of the sea it shines a pale, transparent rose.
He would like to have sent her, if he had got any skill of the brush, some brief memorandum of that beautiful thing; but indeed, and in any case, that was not the sort of painting she seemed to care for just then. Mr. Lemuel, and his Palace of Art, and his mediaeval saints, and what not, which had all for a time disappeared from Miss White's letters, began now to monopolize a good deal of space there; and there was no longer any impertinent playfulness in her references, but, on the contrary, a respect and admiration that occasionally almost touched enthusiasm. From hints more than statements Macleod gathered that Miss White had been made much of by the people frequenting Mr. Lemuel's house. She had there met one or two gentlemen who had written very fine things about her in the papers; and certain highly distinguished people had been good enough to send her cards of invitation; and she had once or twice been persuaded to read some piece of dramatic poetry at Mr. Lemuel's afternoon parties; and she even suggested that Mr. Lemuel had almost as much as said that he would like to paint her portrait. Mr. Lemuel had also offered her, but she had refused to accept, a small but marvellous study by Pinturicchio, which most people considered the gem of his collection.
Macleod, reading and re-reading these letters many a time in the solitudes of western Mull, came to the opinion that there must be a good deal of amusement going on in London. And was it not natural that a young girl should like to be petted, and flattered, and made much of? Why should he complain when she wrote to say how she enjoyed this and was charmed by that? Could he ask her to exchange that gay and pleasant life for this hibernation in Mull? Sometimes for days together the inhabitants of Castle Dare literally lived in the clouds. Dense bands of white mist lay all along the cliffs; and they lived in a semi-darkness, with the mournful dripping of the rain on the wet garden, and the mournful wash of the sea all around the shores. He was glad, then, that Gertrude White was not at Castle Dare.
But sometimes, when he could not forbear opening his heart to her, and pressing her for some more definite assurance as to the future, the ordinary playful banter in which she generally evaded his urgency gave place to a tone of coldness that astonished and alarmed him. Why should she so cruelly resent this piteous longing of his? Was she no longer, then, so anxious to escape from the thraldom that had seemed so hateful to her?
"Hamish," said Macleod, abruptly, after reading one of these letters, "come, now, we will go and overhaul the Umpire, for you know she is to be made very smart this summer; for we have people coming all the way from London to Dare, and they must not think we do not know in Mull how to keep a yacht in shipshape."
"Ay, sir," said Hamish; "and if we do not know that in Mull, where will they be likely to know that?"
"And you will get the cushions in the saloon covered again; and we will have a new mirror for the ladies' cabin, and Miss Macleod, if you ask her, will put a piece of lace round the top of that, to make it look like a lady's room. And then, you know, Hamish, you can show the little boy Johnny Wickes how to polish the brass; and he will polish the brass in the ladies' cabin until it is as white as silver. Because, you know, Hamish, they have very fine yachts in the South. They are like hotels on the water. We must try to be as smart as we can."
"I do not know about the hotels," said Hamish, scornfully. "And perhaps it is a fine thing to hef a hotel; and Mr. M'Arthur they say he is a ferry rich man, and he has ferry fine pictures too; but I was thinking that if I will be off the Barra Head on a bad night—between the Sgriobh bhan and the Barra Head on a bad night—it is not any hotel I will be wishing that I wass in, but a good boat. And the Umpire she is a good boat; and I hef no fear of going anywhere in the world with her—to London or to Inverary, ay, or the Queen's own castle on the island—and she will go there safe, and she will come back safe; and if she is not a hotel—well, perhaps she will not be a hotel; but she is a fine good boat, and she has swinging lamps whatever."
But even the presence of the swinging-lamps, which Hamish regarded as the highest conceivable point of luxury, did little to lessen the dolorousness of the appearance of the poor old Umpire. As Macleod, seated in the stern of the gig, approached her, she looked like some dingy old hulk relegated to the duty of keeping stores. Her top-mast and bowsprit removed; not a stitch of cord on her; only the black iron shrouds remaining of all her rigging; her skylights and companion-hatch covered with waterproof—it was a sorry spectacle. And then when they went below, even the swinging-lamps were blue-moulded and stiff. There was an odor of damp straw throughout. All the cushions and carpets had been removed; there was nothing but the bare wood of the floor and the couches and the table; with a match-box saturated with wet, an empty wine-bottle, a newspaper five months old, a rusty corkscrew, a patch of dirty water—the leakage from the skylight overhead.
That was what Hamish saw.
What Macleod saw, as he stood there absently staring at the bare wood, was very different. It was a beautiful, comfortable saloon that he saw, all brightly furnished and gilded, and there was a dish of flowers—heather and rowan-berries intermixed—on the soft red cover of the table. And who is this that is sitting there, clad in sailor-like blue and white, and laughing, as she talks in her soft English speech? He is telling her that, if she means to be a sailor's bride, she must give up the wearing of gloves on board ship, although, to be sure, those gloved small hands look pretty enough as they rest on the table and play with a bit of bell-heather. How bright her smile is. She is in a mood for teasing people. The laughing face, but for the gentleness of the eyes, would be audacious. They say that the width between those long-lashed eyes is a common peculiarity of the artist's face; but she is no longer an artist; she is only the brave young yachtswoman who lives at Castle Dare. The shepherds know her, and answer her in the Gaelic when she speaks to them in passing; the sailors know her, and would adventure their lives to gratify her slightest wish; and the bearded fellows who live their solitary life far out at Dubh Artach lighthouse, when she goes out to them with a new parcel of books and magazines, do not know how to show their gladness at the very sight of her bonnie face. There was once an actress of the same name, but this is quite a different woman. And to-morrow—do you know what she is going to do to-morrow?—to-morrow she is going away in this very yacht to a loch in the distant island of Lewis, and she is going to bring back with her some friends of hers who live there; and there will be high holiday at Castle Dare. An actress? Her cheeks are too sun-browned for the cheeks of an actress.
"Well, sir?" Hamish said, at length; and Macleod started.
"Very well, then," he said, impatiently, "why don't you go on deck and find out where the leakage of the skylight is?"
Hamish was not used to being addressed in this fashion, and walked away with a proud and hurt air. As he ascended the companion-way, he was muttering to himself in his native tongue,—
"Yes, I am going to find out where the leakage is, but perhaps it would be easier to find out below where the leakage is. If there is something the matter with the keel, is it the cross-trees you will go to to look for it? But I do not know what has come to the young master of late."
When Keith Macleod was alone, he sat down on the wooden bench and took out a letter, and tried to find there some assurance that this beautiful vision of his would some day be realized. He read it and re-read it; but his anxious scrutiny only left him the more disheartened. He went up on deck. He talked to Hamish in a perfunctory manner about the smartening up of the Umpire. He appeared to have lost interest in that already.
And then again he would seek relief in hard work, and try to forget altogether this hated time of enforced absence. One night word was brought by some one that the typhoid fever had broken out in the ill-drained cottages of Iona, and he said at once that next morning he would go round to Bunessan and ask the sanitary inspector there to be so kind as to inquire into this matter, and see whether something could not be done to improve these hovels.
"I am sure the duke does not know of it, Keith," his cousin Janet said, "or he would have a great alteration made."
"It is easy to make alterations," said he, "but it is not easy to make the poor people take advantage of them. They have such good health from the sea-air that they will not pay attention to ordinary cleanliness. But now that two or three of the young girls and children are ill, perhaps it is a good time to have something done."
Next morning, when he rose before it was daybreak, there was every promise of a fine day. The full moon was setting behind the western seas, lighting up the clouds there with a dusky yellow; in the east there was a wilder glare of steely blue high up over the intense blackness on the back of Ben-an-Sloich; and the morning was still, for he heard, suddenly piercing the silence, the whistle of a curlew, and that became more and more remote as the unseen bird winged its flight far over the sea. He lit the candles, and made the necessary preparations for his journey; for he had some message to leave at Kinloch, at the head of Loch Scridain, and he was going to ride round that way. By and by the morning light had increased so much that he blew out the candles.
No sooner had he done this than his eye caught sight of something outside that startled him. It seemed as though great clouds of golden-white, all ablaze in sunshine, rested on the dark bosom of the deep. Instantly he went to the window; and then he saw that these clouds were not clouds at all, but the islands around glittering in the "white wonder of the snow," and catching here and there the shafts of the early sunlight that now streamed through the valleys of Mull. The sudden marvel of it! There was Ulva, shining beautiful as in a sparkling bridal veil; and Gometra a paler blue-white in the shadow; and Colonsay and Erisgeir also a cold white; and Staffa pale gray; and then the sea that the gleaming islands rested on was a mirror of pale-green and rose-purple hues reflected from the morning sky. It was all dream-like, so still, and beautiful, and silent. But he now saw that that fine morning would not last. Behind the house clouds of a suffused yellow began to blot out the sparkling peaks of Ben-an-Sloich. The colors of the plain of the sea were troubled with gusts of wind until they disappeared altogether. The sky in the north grew an ominous black, until the farther shores of Loch Tua were dazzling white against that bank of angry cloud. But to Bunessan he would go.