"And you will have no fear of the beast when you go into Mackinnon's cave," said Janet Macleod to her, with a friendly smile, "because no one has ever heard of it again. Do you know, it was a strange thing? They saw in the sand the footprint of an animal that is not known to any one about here; even Keith himself did not know what it was—"
"I think it was a wild-cat," said he.
"And the men they had nothing to do then; and they went all about the caves, but they could see nothing of it. And it has never come back again."
"And I suppose you are not anxious for its coming back?" Miss White said.
"Perhaps you will be very lucky and see it some day, and I know that Keith would like to shoot it, whatever it is."
"That is very likely," Miss White said, without any apparent sarcasm.
By and by they paused opposite the entrance to a cave that seemed even larger and blacker than the others; and then Miss White discovered that they were considering at what point they could most easily effect a landing. Already through the singularly clear water she could make out vague green masses that told of the presence of huge blocks of yellow rock far below them; and as they cautiously went farther toward the shore, a man at the bow calling out to them, these blocks of rock became clearer and clearer, until it seemed as if those glassy billows that glided under the boat, and then went crashing in white foam a few yards beyond, must inevitably transfix the frail craft on one of these jagged points. But at length they managed to run the bow of the gig into a somewhat sheltered place, and two of the men, jumping knee-deep into the water, hauled the keel still farther over the grating shell-fish of the rock; and then Macleod, scrambling out, assisted Miss White to land.
"Do you not come with us?" Miss White called back to the boat.
"Oh, it is many a time I have been in the cave," said Janet Macleod; "and I will have the luncheon ready for you. And you will not stay long in the cave, for it is cold and damp."
He took her hand, for the scrambling over the rough rocks and stores was dangerous work for unfamiliar ankles. They drew nearer to this awful thing, that rose far above them, and seemed waiting to enclose them and shut them in forever. And whereas about the other caves there were plenty of birds flying, with their shrill screams denoting their terror or resentment, there was no sign of life at all about this black and yawning chasm, and there was an absolute silence, but for the rolling of the breakers behind them that only produced vague and wandering echoes. As she advanced over the treacherous shingle, she became conscious of a sort of twilight appearing around her. A vast black thing—black as night and still as the grave—was ahead of her; but already the change from the blaze of sunlight outside to this partial darkness seemed strange on the eyes. The air grew colder. As she looked up at the tremendous walls, and at the mysterious blackness beyond, she grasped his hand more tightly, though the walking on the wet sand was now comparatively easy. And as they went farther and farther into this blackness, there was only a faint, strange light that made an outline of the back of his figure, leaving his face in darkness; and when he stopped to examine the sand, she turned and looked back, and behold the vast portal by which they entered had now dwindled down into a small space of bewildering white.
"No," said he, and she was startled by the hollow tones of his voice; "I cannot find any traces of the boat news; they have all gone."
Then he produced a candle and lit it; and as they advanced farther into the blackness, there was visible this solitary star of red fire, that threw dull, mysterious gleams from time to time on some projecting rocks.
"You must give me your hand again, Keith," said she, in a low voice; and when he shifted the candle, and took her hand in his, he found that it was trembling somewhat.
"Will you go any farther?" said he.
They stood and looked around. The darkness seemed without limits; the red light was insufficient to produce anything like an outline of this immense place, even in faint and wandering gleams.
"If anything were to move, Keith," said she, "I should die."
"Oh, nonsense!" said he, in a cheerful way; but the hollow echoes of the cavern made his voice sound sepulchral. "There is no beast at all in here, you may be sure. And I have often thought of the fright a wild-cat or a beaver may have got when he came in here in the night, and then discovered he had stumbled on a lot of sleeping men—"
"They say this was a sanctuary of the Culdees; and I often wonder how the old chaps got their food. I am afraid they must have often fallen back on the young cormorants: that is what Major Stuart calls an expeditious way of dining—for you eat two courses, fish and meat, at the same time. And if you go further along, Gertrude, you will come to the great altar-stone they used."
"I would rather not go," said she. "I—I do not like this place. I think we will go back now, Keith."
As they cautiously made their way back to the glare of the entrance, she still held his hand tight; and she did not speak at all. Their footsteps echoed strangely in this hollow space. And then the air grew suddenly warm; and there was a glow of daylight around; and although her eyes were rather bewildered, she breathed more freely, and there was an air of relief on her face.
"I think I will sit down for a moment, Keith," said she; and then he noticed, with a sudden alarm, that her cheeks were rather pale.
"Are you ill?" said he, with a quick anxiety in his eyes "Were you frightened?"
"Oh, no!" said she, with a forced cheerfulness, and she sat down for a moment on one of the smooth boulders. "You must not think I am such a coward as that. But—the chilling atmosphere—the change—made me a little faint."
"Shall I run down to the boat for some wine for you? I know that Janet has brought some claret."
"Oh, not at all!" said she—and he saw with a great delight that her color was returning. "I am quite well now. But I will rest for a minute, if you are in no hurry, before scrambling down those stones again."
He was in no hurry; on the contrary, he sat down beside her and took her hand.
"You know, Gerty," said he, "it will be some time before I can learn all that you like and dislike, and what you can bear, and what pleases you best; it will be some time, no doubt; but then, when I have learned, you will find that no one will look after you so carefully as I will."
"I know you are very kind to me," said she, in a low voice.
"And now," said he, very gently, and even timidly, but his firm hand held her languid one with something of a more nervous clasp, "if you would only tell me, Gerty, that on such and such a day you would leave the stage altogether, and on such and such a day you would let me come to London—and you know the rest—then I would go to my mother, and there would be no need of any more secrecy, and instead of her treating you merely as a guest she would look on you as her daughter, and you might talk with her frankly."
She did not at all withdraw the small gloved hand, with its fringe of fur at the end of the narrow sleeve. On the contrary, as it lay there in his warm grasp, it was like the small, white, furred foot of a ptarmigan, so little and soft and gentle was it.
"Well, you know, Keith," she said, with a great kindness in the clear eyes, though they were cast down, "I think the secret between you and me should be known to nobody at all but ourselves—any more than we can reasonably help. And it is a very great step to take; and you must not expect me to be in a hurry, for no good ever came of that. I did not think you would have cared so much—I mean, a man has so many distractions and occupations of shooting, and going away in your yacht and all that—I fancy—I am a little surprised—that you make so much of it. We have a great deal to learn yet, Keith; we don't know each other very well. By and by we may be quite sure that there is no danger; that we understand each other; that nothing and nobody is likely to interfere. But wouldn't you prefer to be left in the meantime just a little bit free—not quite pledged, you know, to such a serious thing—"
He had been listening to these faltering phrases in a kind of dazed and pained stupor. It was like the water overwhelming a drowning man. But at last he cried out—and he grasped both her hands in the sudden vehemence of the moment—
"Gerty, you are not drawing back! You do not despair of our being husband and wife! What is it that you mean?"
"Oh, Keith!" said she, quickly withdrawing one of her hands, "you frighten me when you talk like that! You do not know what you are doing—you have hurt my wrist!"
"Oh, I hope not!" said he. "Have I hurt your hand, Gerty?—and I would cut off one of mine to save you a scratch! But you will tell me now that you have no fears—that you don't want to draw back! I would like to take you back to Dare, and be able to say to every one, 'Do you know that this is my wife—that by and by she is coming to Dare—and you will all be kind to her for her own sake and for mine.' And if there is anything wrong, Gerty, if there is anything you would like altered, I would have it altered. We have a rude way of life; but every one would be kind to you. And if the life here is too rough for you, I would go anywhere with you that you choose to live. I was looking at the houses in Essex. I would go to Essex, or anywhere you might wish; that need not separate us at all. And why are you so cold and distant, Gerty? Has anything happened here to displease you? Have we frightened you by too much of the boats and of the sea? Would you rather live in an English county away from the sea? But I would do that for you, Gerty—if I was never to see a sea-bird again."
And in spite of himself tears rose quickly to his eyes; for she seemed so far away from him, even as he held her hand; and his heart would speak at last—or break.
"It was all the winter months I was saying to myself, 'Now you will not vex her with too much pleading, for she has much trouble with her work; and that is enough; and a man can bear his own trouble.' And once or twice, when we have been caught in a bad sea, I said to myself, 'And what matter now if the end comes?—for perhaps that would only release her.' But then again, Gerty, I thought of the time you gave me the red rose; and I said, 'Surely her heart will not go away from me; and I have plenty to live for yet!'"
Then she looked him frankly in the face, with those beautiful, clear, sad eyes.
"You deserve all the love a woman can give you, Keith; for you have a man's heart. And I wish I could make you a fair return for all your courage, and gentleness, and kindness—"
"Ah, do not say that," he said, quickly. "Do not think I am complaining of you, Gerty. It is enough—it is enough—I thank God for his mercy to me; for there never was any man so glad as I was when you gave me the red rose. And now, sweetheart—now you will tell me that I will put away all this trouble and have no more fears; and there will be no need to think of what you are doing far away; and there will be one day that all the people will know—and there will be laughing and gladness that day; and if we will keep the pipes away from you, all the people about will have the pipes, and there will be a dance and a song that day. Ah, Gerty, you must not think harshly of the people about here. They have their ways. They would like to please you. But my heart is with them; and a marriage-day would be no marriage-day to me that I did not spend among my own people—my own people."
He was talking quite wildly. She had seen him in this mood once or twice before, and she was afraid.
"But you know, Keith," said she, gently, and with averted eyes, "a great deal has to be done before then. And a woman is not so impulsive as a man; and you must not be angry if I beg for a little time—"
"And what is time?" said he, in the same glad and wild way—and now it was his hand holding hers that was trembling. "It will all go by in a moment—like a dream—when we know that the one splendid day is coming. And I will send a haunch to the Dubh Artach men that morning; and I will send a haunch to Skerryvore; and there will not be a man in Iona, or Coll, or Mull, that will not have his dram that day. And what will you do, Gerty—what will you do? Oh, I will tell you now what you will do on that morning. You will take out some sheets of the beautiful, small, scented paper; and you will write to this theatre and to that theatre: 'Good-by—perhaps you were useful to me once, and I bear you no ill-will: but—Good-by forever and ever!' And I will have all the children that I took to the Crystal Palace last summer given a fine dinner; and the six boy-pipers will play Mrs. Macleod of Raasay again; and they will have a fine reel once more. There will be many a one know that you are married that day, Gerty. And when is the day to be, Gerty? Cannot you tell me now?"
"There is a drop of rain!" she exclaimed; and she suddenly sprang to her feet. The skies were black overhead. "Oh, dear me!" she said, "how thoughtless of us to leave your poor cousin Janet in that open boat, and a shower coming on! Please give me your hand now, Keith. And you must not take all these things so seriously to heart, you know; or I will say you have not the courage of a feeble woman like myself. And do you think the shower will pass over?"
"I do not know," said he, in a vague way, as if he had not quite understood the question; but he took her hand, and in silence guided her down to the rocks, where the boat was ready to receive them.
And now they saw the strange transformation that had come over the world. The great troubled sea was all of a dark slate-green, with no glad ripples of white, but with long-squally drifts of black; and a cold wind was blowing gustily in; and there were hurrying clouds of a leaden hue tearing across the sky. As for the islands—where were they? Ulva was visible, to be sure, and Colonsay—both of them a heavy and gloomy purple; and nearer at hand the rock of Errisker showed in a wan, gray light between the lowering sky and the squally sea; but Lunga, and Fladda, and Staffa, and Iona, and even the long promontory of the Ross of Mull, were all hidden away behind the driving mists of rain.
"Oh you lazy people!" Janet Macleod cried, cheerfully—she was not at all frightened by the sudden storm. "I thought the wild beast had killed you in the cave. And shall we have luncheon now, Keith, or go back at once?"
He cast an eye towards the westward horizon and the threatening sky: Janet noticed at once that he was rather pale.
"We will have luncheon as they pull us back," said he, in an absent way, as if he was not quite sure of what was happening around him.
He got her into the boat, and then followed. The men, not sorry to get away from these jagged rocks, took to their oars with a will. And then he sat silent and distraught, as the two women, muffled up in their cloaks, chatted cheerfully, and partook of the sandwiches and claret that Janet had got out of the basket. "Fhir a bhata," the men sang to themselves; and they passed under the great cliffs, all black and thunderous now; and the white surf was springing over the rocks. Macleod neither ate nor drank; but sometimes he joined in the conversation in a forced way; and occasionally he laughed more loudly than the occasion warranted.
"Oh yes," he said, "oh yes, you are becoming a good sailor now, Gertrude. You have no longer any fear of the water."
"You will become like little Johnny Wickes, Miss White," the cousin Janet said, "the little boy I showed you the other day. He has got to be like a duck in his love for the water. And, indeed, I should have thought he would have got a fright when Keith saved him from drowning; but no."
"Did you save him from being drowned?" she said, turning to him. "And you did not tell me the story?"
"It was no story," said he. "He fell into the water, and we picked him up somehow;" and then he turned impatiently to the men, and said some words to them in the Gaelic, and there was no more singing of the Farewell to the Boatman after that.
They got home to Castle Dare before the rain came on; though, indeed, it was but a passing shower, and it was succeeded by a bright afternoon that deepened into a clear and brilliant sunset; but as they went up through the moist-smelling larch-wood—and as Janet happened to fall behind for a moment, to speak to a herdboy who was by the wayside—Macleod said to his companion,—
"And have you no other word for me, Gertrude?"
Then she said with a very gracious smile,
"You must be patient, Keith. Are we not very well off as we are? I know a good many people who are not quite so well off. And I have no doubt we shall have courage to meet whatever good or bad fortune the days may bring us; and if it is good, then we shall shake hands over it, just as the village people do in an opera."
Fine phrases; though this man, with the dark and hopeless look in his eyes, did not seem to gain much gladness from them. And she forgot to tell him about that engagement which was to last till Christmas; perhaps if she had told him just then he would scarcely have heard her.
THE NEW TRAGEDY.
His generous, large nature fought hard to find excuses for her. He strove to convince himself that this strange coldness, this evasion, this half-repellent attitude, was but a form of maiden coyness. It was her natural fear of so great a change. It was the result, perhaps, of some last lingering look back to the scene of her artistic triumphs. It did not even occur to him as a possibility that this woman with her unstable sympathies and her fatally facile imagination, should have taken up what was now the very end and aim of his life, and have played with the pretty dream until she grew tired of the toy, and was ready to let her wandering fancy turn to something other and new.
He dared not even think of that; but all the same, as he stood at this open window alone, an unknown fear had come over him. It was a fear altogether vague and undefined; but it seemed to have the power of darkening the daylight around him. Here was the very picture he had so often desired that she should see—the wind-swept Atlantic; the glad blue skies with their drifting clouds of summer white; the Erisgeir rocks; the green shores of Ulva; and Colonsay and Gometra and Staffa all shining in the sunlight; with the sea-birds calling, and the waves breaking, and the soft west wind stirring the fuchsia-bushes below the windows of Castle Dare. And it was all dark now; and the sea was a lonely thing—more lonely than ever it had been even during that long winter that he had said was like a grave.
And she?—at this moment she was down at the small bridge that crossed the burn. She had gone out to seek her father; had found him coming up through the larch-wood, and was now accompanying him back. They had rested here; he sitting on the weatherworn parapet of the bridge; she leaping over it, and idly dropping bits of velvet-green moss into the whirl of clear brown water below.
"I suppose we must be thinking of getting away from Castle Dare, Gerty," said he.
"I shall not be sorry," she answered.
But even Mr. White was somewhat taken aback by the cool promptitude of this reply.
"Well, you know your own business best," he said to her. "It is not for me to interfere. I said from the beginning I would not interfere. But still I wish you would be a little more explicit, Gerty, and let one understand what you mean—whether, in fact, you do mean, or do not mean, to marry Macleod."
"And who said that I proposed not to marry him?" said she; but she still leaned over the rough stones and looked at the water. "The first thing that would make me decline would be the driving me into a corner—the continual goading, and reminding me of the duty I had to perform. There has been just a little too much of that here"—and at this point she raised herself so that she could regard her father when she wished—"and I really must say that I do not like to be taking a holiday with the feeling hanging over you that certain things are expected of you every other moment, and that you run the risk of being considered a very heartless and ungrateful person unless you do and say certain things you would perhaps rather not do and say. I should like to be let alone. I hate being goaded. And I certainly did not expect that you, too, papa, would try to drive me into a corner."
She spoke with some little warmth. Mr. White smiled.
"I was quite unaware, Gerty," said he, "that you were suffering this fearful persecution."
"You may laugh, but it is true," said she, and there was a trifle of color in her cheeks. "The serious interests I am supposed to be concerned about! Such profound topics of conversation! Will the steamer come by the south to-morrow, or round by the north? The Gometra men have had a good take of lobsters yesterday. Will the head-man at the Something lighthouse be transferred to some other lighthouse? and how will his wife and family like the change? They are doing very well with a subscription for a bell for the Free Church at Iona. The deer have been down at John Maclean's barley again. Would I like to visit the weaver at Iona who has such a wonderful turn for mathematics? and would I like to know the man at Salen who has the biographies of all the great men of the time in his head?"
Miss White had worked herself up to a pretty pitch of contemptuous indignation; her father was almost beginning to believe that it was real.
"It is all very well for the Macleods to interest themselves with these trumpery little local matters. They play the part of grand patron; the people are proud to honor them; it is a condescension when they remember the name of the crofter's youngest boy. But as for me—when I am taken about—well, I do not like being stared at as if they thought I was wearing too fine clothes. I don't like being continually placed in a position of inferiority through my ignorance—an old fool of a boatman saying 'Bless me!' when I have to admit that I don't know the difference between a sole and a flounder. I don't want to know. I don't want to be continually told. I wish these people would meet me on my own ground. I wish the Macleods would begin to talk after dinner about the Lord Chamberlain's interference with the politics of burlesque, and then perhaps they would not be so glib. I am tired of hearing about John Maclean's boat, and Donald Maclean's horse, and Sandy Maclean's refusal to pay the road-tax. And as for the drinking of whiskey that these sailors get through—well, it seems to me that the ordinary condition of things is reversed here altogether; and if they ever put up an asylum in Mull, it will be a lunatic asylum for incurable abstainers."
"Now, now, Gerty!" said her father; but all the same he rather liked to see his daughter get on her high horse, for she talked with spirit, and it amused him. "You must remember that Macleod looks on this as a holiday-time, and perhaps he may be a little lax in his regulations. I have no doubt it is because he is so proud to have you on board his yacht that he occasionally gives the men an extra glass; and I am sure it does them no harm, for they seem to be as much in the water as out of it."
She paid no heed to this protest. She was determined to give free speech to her sense of wrong, and humiliation, and disappointment.
"What has been the great event since ever we came here—the wildest excitement the island can afford?" she said, "the arrival of the pedlar! A snuffy old man comes into the room, with a huge bundle wrapped up in dirty waterproof. Then there is a wild clatter of Gaelic. But suddenly, don't you know, there are one or two glances at me; and the Gaelic stops; and Duncan or John, or whatever they call him, begins to stammer in English, and I am shown coarse stockings, and bundles of wool, and drugget petticoats, and cotton handkerchiefs. And then Miss Macleod buys a number of things which I know she does not want; and I am looked on as a strange creature because I do not purchase a bundle of wool or a pair of stockings fit for a farmer. The Autolycus of Mull is not impressive, pappy. Oh, but I forgot the dramatic surprise—that also was to be an event, I have no doubt. I was suddenly introduced to a child dressed in a kilt; and I was to speak to him; and I suppose I was to be profoundly moved when I heard him speak to me in my own tongue in this out of the world place. My own tongue! The horrid little wretch has not an h."
"Well, there's no pleasing you, Gerty," said he.
"I don't want to be pleased; I want to be let alone," said she.
But she said this with just a little too much sharpness; for her father was, after all, a human being; and it did seem to him to be too bad that he should be taunted in this fashion, when he had done his best to preserve a wholly neutral attitude.
"Let me tell you this, madam," said he, in a playful manner, but with some decision in his tone, "that you may live to have the pride taken out of you. You have had a good deal of flattery and spoiling; and you may find out you have been expecting too much. As for these Macleods here, I will say this—although I came here very much against my own inclination—that I defy any one to have been more kind, and courteous, and attentive than they have been to you. I don't care. It is not my business, as I tell you. But I must say, Gerty, that when you make a string of complaints as the only return for all their hospitality—their excessive and almost burdensome hospitality—I think that even I am bound to say a word. You forget how you come here. You, a perfect stranger, come here as engaged to marry the old lady's only son—to dispossess her—very probably to make impossible a match that she had set her heart on. And both she and her niece—you understand what I mean—instead of being cold, or at least formal, to you, seem to me to think of nothing from morning till night but how to surround you with kindness, in a way that Englishwomen would never think of. And this you call persecution; and you are vexed with them because they won't talk to you about theatres—why, bless my soul, how long it is since you were yourself talking about theatres as if the very word choked you?"
"Well, at least, pappy, I never thought you would turn against me," said she, as she put her head partly aside, and made a mouth as if she were about to cry; "and when mamma made you promise to look after Carry and me, I am sure she never thought—"
Now this was too much for Mr. White. In the small eyes behind the big gold spectacles there was a quick flash of fire.
"Don't be a fool, Gerty!" said he, in downright anger. "You know it is no use your trying to humbug me. If you think the ways of this house are too poor and mean for your grand notions of state—if you think he has not enough money, and you are not likely to have fine dinners and entertainments for your friends—if you are determined to break off the match—why, then do it! but, I tell you, don't try to humbug me!"
Miss White's pathetic attitude suddenly vanished. She drew herself up with much dignity and composure, and said,
"At all events, sir, I have been taught my duty to you; and I think it better not to answer you."
With that she moved off toward the house; and Mr. White, taking to whistling, began to do as she had been doing—idly throwing bits of moss into the rushing burn. After all, it was none of his business.
But that evening, some little time before dinner, it was proposed they should go for a stroll down to the shore; and then it was that Miss White thought she would seize the occasion to let Macleod know of her arrangements for the coming autumn and winter. Ordinarily, on such excursions, she managed to walk with Janet Macleod—the old lady of Castle Dare seldom joined them—leaving Macleod to follow with her father; but this time she so managed it that Macleod and she left the house together. Was he greatly overjoyed? There was a constrained and anxious look on his face that had been there too much of late.
"I suppose Oscar is more at home here than in Bury Street, St. James's?" said she, as the handsome collie went down the path before them.
"No doubt," said he, absently: he was not thinking of any collie.
"What beautiful weather we are having," said she, to this silent companion. "It is always changing, but always beautiful. There is only one other aspect I should like to see—the snow time."
"We have not much snow here," said he. "It seldom lies in the winter."
This was a strange conversation for two engaged lovers it was not much more interesting than their talk—how many ages ago?—at Charing Cross station. But then, when she had said to him, "Ought we to take tickets?" she had looked into his face with those appealing, innocent, beautiful eyes. Now her eyes never met his. She was afraid.
She managed to lead up to her announcement skilfully enough. By the time they reached the shore an extraordinarily beautiful sunset was shining over the sea and the land, something so bewildering and wonderful that they all four stopped to look at it. The Atlantic was a broad expanse of the palest and most brilliant green, with the pathway of the sun a flashing line of gold coming right across until it met the rocks, and there was a jet black against the glow. Then the distant islands of Colonsay, and Staffa, and Lunga, and Fladda lying on this shining green sea, appeared to be of a perfectly transparent bronze; while nearer at hand the long ranges of cliffs were becoming a pale rose-red under the darkening blue-gray sky. It was a blaze of color such as she had never even dreamed of as being possible in nature; nothing she had as yet seen in these northern latitudes had at all approached it. And as she stood there, and looked at those transparent islands of bronze on the green sea, she said to him,—
"Do you know, Keith, this is not at all like the place I had imagined as the scene of the gloomy stories you used to tell me about the revenges of the clans. I have been frightened once or twice since I came here, no doubt, by the wild sea, and the darkness of the cathedral, and so forth; but the longer I stay the less I see to suggest those awful stories. How could you associate such an evening as this with a frightful tragedy? Do you think those people ever existed who were supposed to have suffocated, or slaughtered, or starved to death any one who opposed their wishes?"
"And I do not suppose they troubled themselves much about fine sunsets," said he. "That was not what they had to think about in those days."
"Perhaps not," said she, lightly; "but, you know, I had expected to find a place from which I could gain some inspiration for tragedy—for I should like to try, once for all—if I should have to give up the stage—whether I had the stuff of a tragic actress in me. And, you know, in that case, I ought to dress in black velvet, and carry a taper through dungeons, and get accustomed to storms, and gloom, and thunder and lightning."
"We have no appliances here for the education of an actress—I am very sorry," said he.
"Now, Keith, that is hardly fair," said she, with a smile. "You know it is only a trial. And you saw what they said of my Juliet. Oh, did I tell you about the new tragedy that is coming out?"
"No, I do not think you did," said he.
"Ah, well, it is a great secret as yet; but there is no reason why you should not hear of it."
"I am not anxious to hear of it," said he, without any rudeness.
"But it concerns me," she said, "and so I must tell you. It is written by a brother of Mr. Lemuel, the artist I have often spoken to you about. He is by profession an architect; but if this play should turn out to be as fine as some people say it is, he ought to take to dramatic writing. In fact, all the Lemuels—there are three brothers of them, you know—are like Michael Angelo and Leonardo—artists to the finger-tips, in every direction—poets, painters, sculptors, and all the rest of it. And I do think I ought to feel flattered by their choice in asking me to play the heroine; for so much depends on the choice of the actress—"
"And you are still to act?" said he, quickly, though he spoke in a low voice, so that those behind should not hear.
"Surely I explained to you?" said she, in a pleasant manner. "After all, lifelong habits are not so easily cast aside; and I knew you would be generous, and bear with me a little bit, Keith."
He turned to her. The glow of the sunset caught his face. There was a strange, hopeless sadness in his eyes.
"Generous to you?" said he. "You know I would give you my life if that would serve you. But this is worse than taking my life from me."
"Keith, Keith!" said she, in gentle protest, "I don't know what you mean. You should not take things so seriously. What is it, after all? It was as an actress that you knew me first. What is the difference of a few months more or less? If I had not been an actress, you would never have known me—do you recollect that? By the way, has Major Stuart's wife got a piano?"
He turned and stared at her for a second, in a bewildered way.
"Oh yes," said he, with a laugh, "Mrs. Stuart has got a piano; she has got a very good piano. And what is the song you would sing now, sweetheart? Shall we finish up and have done with it, with a song at the end? That is the way in the theatre, you know—a dance and a song as the people go. And what shall our song be now? There was one that Norman Ogilvie used to sing."
"I don't know why you should talk to me like that, Keith," said she, though she seemed somewhat frightened by this fierce gayety. "I was going to tell you that if Mrs. Stuart had a piano I would very gladly sing one or two songs for your mother and Miss Macleod when we went over there to-morrow. You have frequently asked me. Indeed, I have brought with me the very songs I sung to you the first time I saw you—at Mrs. Ross's."
Instantly his memory flew back to that day—to the hushed little room over the sunlit gardens—to the beautiful, gentle, sensitive girl who seemed to have so strange an interest in the Highlands—to the wonderful thrill that went through him when she began to sing with an exquisite pathos, "A wee bird cam' to our ha' door," and to the prouder enthusiasm that stirred him when she sang, "I'll to Lochiel, and Appin, and kneel to them!" These were fine, and tender, and proud songs. There was no gloom about them—nothing about a grave, and the dark winter-time, and a faithless lost love. This song of Norman Ogilvie's that he had gayly proposed they should sing now? What had Major Stuart, or his wife, or any one in Mull to do with "Death's black wine?"
"I meant to tell you, Keith," said she, somewhat nervously, "that I had signed an engagement to remain at the Piccadilly Theatre till Christmas next. I knew you wouldn't mind—I mean, you would be considerate, and you would understand how difficult it is for one to break away all at once from one's old associations. And then, you know, Keith," said she, shyly, "though you may not like the theatre, you ought to be proud of my success, as even my friends and acquaintances are. And as they are all anxious to see me make another appearance in tragedy, I really should like to try it; so that when my portrait appears in the Academy next year, people may not be saying, 'Look at the impertinence of that girl appearing as a tragic actress when she can do nothing beyond the familiar modern comedy!' I should have told you all about it before, Keith, but I know you hate to hear any talk about the theatre; and I sha'n't bore you again, you may depend on that. Isn't it time to go back now? See! the rose-color is away from Ulva now; it is quite a dark purple."
He turned in silence and led the way back. Behind them he could faintly hear Mr. White discoursing to Janet Macleod about the manner in which the old artists mixed their own pigments.
Then Macleod said, with a great gentleness and restraint,
"And when you go away from here, Gertrude, I suppose I must say good-by to you; and no one knows when we shall see each other again. You are returning to the theatre. If that is your wish, I would not try to thwart it. You know best what is the highest prize the world can give you. And how can I warn you against failure and disappointment? I know you will be successful. I know the people will applaud you, and your head will be filled with their praises. You are going forward to a new triumph, Gerty; and the first step you will take will be on my heart."
"Pappy dear," said Miss White to her father, in a playful way, although it was a serious sort of playfulness, "I have a vague feeling that there is a little too much electricity in the atmosphere of this place just at present. I am afraid there may be an explosion; and you know my nerves can't stand much of a shock. I should be glad to get away."
By this time she had quite made up that little difference with her father—she did not choose to be left alone at a somewhat awkward crisis. She had told him she was sure he had not meant what he said about her; and she had expressed her sorrow for having provoked him; and there an end. And if Mr. White had been driven by his anger to be for the moment the ally of Macleod, he was not disinclined to take the other side now and let Miss White have her own will. The vast amount of training he had bestowed on her through many long years was not to be thrown away after all.
"I told him last night," said she, "of my having signed an engagement till Christmas next."
"Oh, indeed!" said her father, quickly; looking at her over his spectacles.
"Yes," said she, thoughtfully, "and he was not so disturbed or angry as I had expected. Not at all. He was very kind about it. But I don't understand him."
"What do you not understand?"
"He has grown so strange of late—so sombre. Once, you know, he was the lightest-hearted young man—enjoying every minute of his life, you know—and really, pappy, I think—"
And here Miss White stopped.
"At all events," said she, quickly, "I want to be in a less dangerously excited atmosphere, where I can sit down and consider matters calmly. It was much better when he and I corresponded, then we could fairly learn what each other thought. Now I am almost afraid of him—I mean, I am afraid to ask him a question. I have to keep out of his way. And if it comes to that, pappy, you know, I feel now as if I was called on to act a part from morning till night, whereas I was always assured that if I left the stage and married him it was to be my natural self, and I should have no more need to pose and sham. However, that is an old quarrel between you and me, pappy, and we will put it aside. What's more to the purpose is this—it was half understood that when we left Castle Dare he was to come with us through at least a part of the Highlands."
"There was a talk of it."
"Don't you think," said Miss White, with some little hesitation, and with her eyes cast down—"don't you think that would be a little inconvenient?"
"I should say that was for you to decide," he answered, somewhat coldly; for it was too bad that she should be continually asking his advice and then openly disregarding it.
"I should think it would be a little uncomfortable," she said, demurely. "I fancy he has taken that engagement till Christmas a little more to heart than he chooses to reveal—that is natural—I knew it would be a disappointment; but then, you know, pappy, the temptation was very great, and I had almost promised the Lemuels to do what I could for the piece. And if I am to give up the stage, wouldn't it be fine to wind up with a blaze of fireworks to astonish the public?"
"Are you so certain you will astonish the public?" her father said.
"I have the courage to try," she answered, readily. "And you are not going to throw cold water on my endeavors, are you, pappy? Well, as I was saying, it is perhaps natural for Sir Keith Macleod to feel a bit annoyed; and I am afraid if he went travelling with us, we should be continually skating on the edge of a quarrel. Besides, to tell you the truth, pappy—with all his kindness and gentleness, there is sometimes about him a sort of intensity that I scarcely like—it makes me afraid of him. If it were on the stage, I should say it was a splendid piece of acting—of the suppressed vehement kind, you know; but really—during a holiday-time, when one naturally wishes to enjoy the fine weather and gather strength for one's work—well, I do think he ought not to come with us, pappy."
"Very well; you can hint as much without being rude."
"I was thinking," said she, "of the Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin who were in that Newcastle company, and who went to Aberdeen. Do you remember them, pappy?"
"The low comedian, you mean?"
"Yes. Well, at all events they would be glad to see us. And so—don't you think?—we could let Macleod understand that we were going to see some friends in the North? Then he would not think of coming with us."
"The representation would scarcely be justifiable," observed Mr. White, with a profound air, "in ordinary circumstances. But, as you say, it would be neither for his comfort nor for yours that he should go with us."
"Comfort!" she exclaimed. "Much comfort I have had since I came here! Comfort I call quiet, and being let alone. Another fortnight at this place would give me brain fever—your life continually in danger either on the sea or by the cliffs—your feelings supposed to be always up at passion pitch—it is all a whirl of secret or declared emotions that don't give you a moment's rest. Oh, pappy, won't it be nice to have a day or two's quiet in our own home, with Carry and Marie? And you know Mr. Lemuel will be in town all the summer and winter. The material for his work he finds within himself. He doesn't need to scamper off like the rest of them to hunt out picturesque peasants and studies of waterfalls—trotting about the country with a note-book in hand—"
"Gerty, Gerty," said her father, with a smile, "your notions are unformed on that subject. What have I told you often?—that the artist is only a reporter. Whether he uses the pencil, or the pen, or his own face and voice, to express the highest thoughts and emotions of which he is conscious, he is only a reporter—a penny-a-liner whose words are written in fire. And you—don't you carry your note-book too?"
"I was not comparing myself with an artist like Mr. Lemuel, pappy. No, no. Of course I have to keep my eyes open, and pick up things that may be useful. His work is the work of intense spiritual contemplation—it is inspiration—"
"No doubt," the father said; "the inspiration of Botticelli."
Mr. White chuckled to himself. He was not given to joking: an epigram was not in consonance with his high sententiousness. But instantly he resumed his solemn deportment.
"A picture is as much a part of the world as a human face: why should I not take my inspiration from a picture as well as from a human face?"
"You mean to say he is only a copyist—a plagiarist!" she said, with some indignation.
"Not at all," said he. "All artists have their methods founded more or less on the methods of those who have gone before them. You don't expect an artist to discover for himself an entirely new principle of art, any more than you expect him to paint in pigments of his own invention. Mr. Lemuel has been a diligent student of Botticelli—that is all."
This strange talk amidst the awful loneliness and grandeur of Glen-Sloich! They were idly walking along the rough road: far above them rose the giant slopes of the mountains retreating into heavy masses of cloud that were moved by the currents of the morning wind. It was a gray day; and the fresh-water lake here was of a leaden hue, and the browns and greens of the mountain-side were dark and intense. There was no sign of human life or habitation; there was no bird singing; the deer was far away in the unknown valleys above them, hidden by the mystic cloud phantoms. There was an odor of sweet-gale in the air. The only sound was the murmuring of the streams that were pouring down through these vast solitudes to the sea.
And now they reached a spot from whence, on turning, they caught sight of the broad plain of the Atlantic—all wind-swept and white. And the sky was dark and low down, though at one place the clouds had parted, and there was a glimmer of blue as narrow and keen as the edge of a knife. But there were showers about; for Iona was invisible, and Staffa was faintly gray through the passing rain; and Ulva was almost black as the storm approached in its gloom. Botticelli! Those men now in that small lugsailed boat—far away off the point of Gometra—a tiny dark thing, apparently lost every second or so amidst the white Atlantic surge, and wrestling hard with the driving wind and sea to reach the thundering and foam-filled caverns of Staffa—they were not thinking much of Botticelli. Keith Macleod was in that boat. The evening before Miss White had expressed some light wish about some trifle or other, but had laughingly said that she must wait till she got back to the region of shops. Unknown to her, Macleod had set off to intercept the steamer: and he would go on board and get hold of the steward; and would the steward be so kind as to hunt about in Oban to see if that trifle could not be found? Macleod would not intrust so important a message to any one else: he would himself go out to meet the Pioneer.
"The sky is becoming very dark," Mr. White said; "we had better go back, Gerty."
But before they had gone far the first heavy drops were beginning to fall, and they were glad to run for refuge to some great gray boulders which lay in the moist moorland at the foot of the mountain-slopes. In the lee of these rocks they were in comparative safety; and they waited patiently until the gale of wind and rain should pass over. And what were these strange objects that appeared in the gray mists far along the valley? She touched her father's arm—she did not speak; it was her first sight of a herd of red-deer; and as the deer had doubtless been startled by a shepherd or his dog, they were making across the glen at a good speed. First came the hinds, running almost in Indian file, and then, with a longer stride, came one or two stags, their antlered heads high in the air, as though they were listening for sounds behind them and sniffing the wind in front of them at the same time. But so far away were they that they were only blurred objects passing through the rain-mists; they passed across like swift ghosts; there was no sound heard at all. And then the rain ceased, and the air grew warm around them. They came out from the shadow of the rock—behold! a blaze of hot sun on the moist moors, with a sudden odor of bracken, and young heather, and sweet-gale all about them. And the sandy road quickly grew dry again; and the heavens opened; and there was a flood of sunlight falling on that rushing and breezy Atlantic. They walked back to Dare.
"Tuesday, then, shall we say, pappy?" she remarked, just before entering.
"And we are going to see some friends in Aberdeen."
After this Miss White became a great deal more cheerful; and she was very complaisant to them all at luncheon. And quite by accident she asked Macleod, who had returned by this time, whether they talked Scotch in Aberdeen.
"Because, you know," said she, "one should always be learning on one's travels; and many a time I have heard people disputing about the pronunciation of the Scotch; and one ought to be able to read Burns with a proper accent. Now, you have no Scotch at all here; you don't say 'my dawtie,' and 'ben the hoose,' and ''twixt the gloaming and the mirk.'"
"Oh no," said he, "we have none of the Scotch at all, except among those who have been for a time to Glasgow or Greenock; and our own language, the Gaelic, is unknown to strangers; and our way of speaking English—that is only made a thing to laugh at. And yet I do not laugh at all at the blunders of our poor people in a strange tongue. You may laugh at us for our way of speaking English—the accent of it; but it is not fair to laugh at the poor people when they will be making mistakes among the verbs. Did you ever hear of the poor Highlander who was asked how he had been employing himself, and, after a long time, he said, 'I wass for two years a herring fish and I wass for four months or three months a broke stone on the road?' Perhaps the Highlanders are not very clever at picking up another language; but all the same that did not prevent their going to all parts of the world and fighting the battles of other people. And do you know that in Canada there are descendants of the Highlanders who went there in the last century; and they are proud of their name and their history; and they have swords that were used at Falkirk and Culloden: but these Macnabs and Mackays, and Camerons, they speak only French! But I think, if they have Highland blood in them, and if they were to hear the 'Failte Phrionsa!' played on the pipes, they would recognize that language. And why were you asking about Aberdeen?"
"That is not a Highland but a Scotch way of answering my question," said she, smiling.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said he, hastily; "but indeed I have never been to Aberdeen, and I do not know what it is they speak there; but I should say it was likely to be a mixture of Scotch and English, such as all the big towns have. I do not think it is a Highland place, like Inverness."
"Now I will answer your question," said she. "I asked you because papa and I propose to go there before returning to England." How quickly the light fell from his face! "The fact is, we have some friends there."
There was silence. They all felt that it was for Macleod to speak; and they may have been guessing as to what was passing in his mind. But to their surprise he said, in almost a gay fashion,—
"Ah, well, you know they accuse us Highland folk of being rather too importunate as hosts; but we will try not to harass you; and if you have friends in Aberdeen, it would not be fair to beg of you to leave them aside this time. But surely you are not thinking of going to Aberdeen yet, when it is many a place you have yet to see about here? I was to take you in the Umpire to Skye; and we had many a talk about the Lewis, too."
"Thank you very much," said she, demurely. "I am sure you have been most kind to us; but—the fact is—I think we must leave on Tuesday."
"On Tuesday!" said he; but it was only for an instant that he winced. Again he roused himself—for he was talking in the presence of his mother and the cousin Janet—"You have not been quite fair to us," said he cheerfully; "you have not given yourself time to make our acquaintance. Are you determined to go away as you came—the Fionaghal? But then, you know, Fionaghal came and stayed among us before she began to write her songs about the Western Isles; and the next time you come that must be for a longer time, and you will get to know us all better, and we will not frighten you any more by taking you on the sea at night or into the cathedral ruins. Ah!" said he, with a smile lighting up his face—but it was a constrained gayety altogether. "Do I know now why you are hurrying away so soon? You want to avoid that trip in the Umpire to the island where I used to think I would like my grave to be—"
"Keith!" said Lady Macleod, with a frown. "How can you repeat that nonsense! Miss White will think you are mad!"
"It was only an old fancy, mother," said he, gently. "And we were thinking of going out to one of the Treshnish islands, anyway. Surely it is a harmless thing that a man should choose out the place of his own grave, so long as he does not want to be put into it too soon."
"It will be time for you to speak of such things thirty years hence," said Lady Macleod.
"Thirty years is a long time," said he; and then he added, lightly, "but if we do not go out to the Treshnish islands, we must go somewhere else before the Tuesday; and would you go round to Loch Sunart now? or shall we drive you to-morrow to see Glen More and Loch Buy? And you must not leave Mull without visiting our beautiful town—and capital—that is Tobermory."
Every one was quite surprised and pleased to find Macleod taking the sudden departure of his sweetheart in this fashion; it showed that he had abundant confidence in the future. And if Miss White had her own thoughts about the matter, it was at all events satisfactory to her that outwardly Macleod and she were parting on good terms.
But that evening he happened to find her alone for a few moments; and all the forced cheerfulness had left his eyes, and there was a dark look there—of hopeless anxiety and pain.
"I do not wish to force you, Gerty—to persecute you," said he. "You are our guest. But before you go away, cannot you give me one definite word of promise and hope—only one word?"
"I am quite sure you don't want to persecute me, Keith," said she, "but you should remember there is a long time of waiting before us, and there will be plenty of opportunity for explaining and arranging everything when we have leisure to write—"
"To write!" he exclaimed. "But I am coming to see you, Gerty! Do you think I could go through another series of long months, with only those letters, and letters, and letters to break one's heart over? I could not do it again. Gerty. And when you have visited your friends in Aberdeen, I am coming lo London."
"Why, Keith, there is the shooting!"
"I do not think I shall try the shooting this year—it is an anxiety—I cannot have patience with it. I am coming to London, Gerty."
"Oh, very well, Keith," said she, with an affectation of cheerful content; "then there is no use in our taking a solemn good-by just now—is there? You know how I hate scenes. And we shall part very good friends, shall we not? And when you come to London, we shall make up all our little differences, and have everything on a clear understanding. Is it a bargain? Here comes your cousin Janet—now show her that we are good friends, Keith! And, for goodness' sake, don't say that you mean to give up your shooting this year, or she will wonder what I have made of you. Give up your shooting! Why, a woman would as soon give up her right of being incomprehensible and whimsical and capricious—her right of teasing people, as I very much fear I have been teasing you, Keith. But it will be all set right when you come to London."
And from that moment to the moment of her departure Miss White seemed to breathe more freely, and she took less care to avoid Keith Macleod in her daily walks and ways. There was at last quite a good understanding between them, as the people around imagined.
But the very first thing she did on reaching home again was to write to Macleod begging him to postpone his visit to London. What was the use? The company of which she formed a part was most probably going on an autumn tour; she was personally very busy. Surely it would not much interest him to be present at the production of a new piece in Liverpool?
And then she pointed out to him that, as she had her duties and occupations, so ought he to have. It was monstrous his thought of foregoing the shooting that year. Why, if he wanted some additional motive, what did he say to preserving as much grouse-plumage as would trim a cloak for her? It was a great pity that the skins of so beautiful a bird should be thrown away. And she desired him to present her kind regards to Lady Macleod and to Miss Macleod; and to thank them both for their great kindness.
Immediately after writing that letter Miss White seemed to grow very light-hearted indeed, and she laughed and chatted with Carry, and was exceedingly affectionate toward her sister.
"And what do you think of your own home now, Gerty?" said Miss Carry, who had been making some small experiments in arrangement.
"You mean, after my being among the savages?" said she. "Ah, it is too true, Carry. I have seen them in their war-paint; and I have shuddered at their spears; and I have made voyages in their canoes. But it is worth while going anywhere and doing anything in order to come back and experience such a sense of relief and quiet. Oh, what a delicious cushion! where did you get it, Carry?"
She sank back in the rocking-chair out on this shaded veranda. It was the slumbering noontide of a July day the foliage above and about the Regent's Canal hung motionless in the still sunlight; and there was a perfume of roses in the air. Here, at last, was repose. She had said that her notion of happiness was to be let alone; and—now that she had despatched that forbidding letter—she would be able to enjoy a quiet and languor free from care.
"Aha, Gerty, don't you know?" said the younger sister. "Well, I suppose, you poor creature, you don't know—you have been among the tigers and crocodiles so long. That cushion is a present from Mr. Lemuel to me—to me, mind, not to you—and he brought it all the way from Damascus some years ago. Oh, Gerty, if I was only three years older, shouldn't I like to be your rival, and have a fight with you for him!"
"I don't know what you mean," said the elder sister, sharply.
"Oh, don't you! Poor, innocent thing! Well, I am not going to quarrel with you this time, for at last you are showing some sense. How you ever could have thought of Mr. Howson, or Mr. Brook, or you know whom—I never could imagine; but here is some one now whom people have heard of—some one with fame like yourself—who will understand you. Oh Gerty, hasn't he lovely eyes?"
"Like a gazelle," said the other. "You know what Mr. —— said—that he never met the appealing look of Mr. Lemuel's eyes without feeling in his pockets for a biscuit."
"He wouldn't say anything like that about you, Gerty," Carry said reproachfully.
"Oh, Carry, don't you understand that I am so glad to be allowed to talk nonsense? I have been all strung up lately—like the string of a violin. Everything au grand serieux I want to be idle, and to chat, and to talk nonsense. Where did you get that bunch of stephanotis?"
"Mr. Lemuel brought it last evening. He knew you were coming home to-day. Oh Gerty, do you know I have seen your portrait, though it isn't finished yet; and you look—you look like an inspired prophetess. I never saw anything so lovely!"
"Indeed!" said Miss White, with a smile; but she was pleased.
"When the public see that, they will know what you are really like, Gerty—instead of buying your photograph in a shop from a collection of ballet-dancers and circus women. That is where you ought to be—in the Royal Academy: not in a shop-window with any mountebank. Oh, Gerty, do you know who is your latest rival in the stationers' windows? The woman who dresses herself as a mermaid and swims in a transparent tank, below water—Fin-fin they call her. I suppose you have not been reading the newspapers?"
"There is a fine collection for you upstairs. And there is an article about you in the Islington Young Men's Improvement Association. It is signed Trismegistus. Oh, it is beautiful, Gerty—quite full of poetry! It says you are an enchantress striking the rockiest heart, and a well of pure emotion springs up. It says you have the beauty of Mrs. Siddons and the genius of Rachel."
"Ah, you don't half believe in yourself, Gerty," said the younger sister, with a critical air. "It is the weak point about you. You depreciate yourself, and you make light of other people's belief in you. However, you can't go against your own genius. That is too strong for you. As soon as you get on the stage, then you forget to laugh at yourself."
"Really, Carry, has papa been giving you a lecture about me?"
"Oh, laugh away? but you know it is true. And a woman like you—you were going to throw yourself away on a—"
"Carry! There are some things that are better not talked about," said Gertrude White, curtly, as she rose and went indoors.
Miss White betook herself to her professional and domestic duties with much alacrity and content, for she believed that by her skill as a letter-writer she could easily ward off the importunities of her too passionate lover. It is true that at times, and in despite of her playful evasion, she was visited by a strange dread. However far away, the cry of a strong man in his agony had something terrible in it. And what was this he wrote to her in simple and calm words?—
"Are our paths diverging, Gerty? and if that is so, what will be the end of it for me and for you? Are you going away from me? After all that has passed, are we to be separated in the future, and you will go one way and I must go the other way, with all the world between us, so that I shall never see you again? Why will you not speak? You hint of lingering doubts and hesitations. Why have you not the courage to be true to yourself—to be true to your woman's heart—to take your life in your own hands, and shape it so that it shall be worthy of you?"
Well, she did speak in answer to this piteous prayer. She was a skilful letter-writer:
"It may seem very ungrateful in an actress, you know, dear Keith, to contest the truth of anything said by Shakespeare; but I don't think, with all humility, there ever was so much nonsense put into so small a space as there is in these lines that everybody quotes at your head—
"To thine own self be true And it must follow, as the night the day Thou canst not then be false to any man."
"'Be true to yourself,' people say to you. But surely every one who is conscious of failings, and deceitfulness, and unworthy instincts, would rather try to be a little better than himself? Where else would there be any improvement, in an individual or in society? You have to fight against yourself, instead of blindly yielding to your wish of the moment. I know I, for one, should not like to trust myself. I wish to be better than I am—to be other than I am—and I naturally look around for help and guidance. Then, you find people recommending you absolutely diverse ways of life, and with all show of authority and reason, too; and in such an important matter ought not one to consider before making a final choice?"
Miss White's studies in mental and moral science, as will readily be perceived, had not been of a profound character. But he did not stay to detect the obvious fallacy of her argument. It was all a maze of words to him. The drowning man does not hear questions addressed to him. He only knows that the waters are closing over him, and there is no arm stretched out to save.
"I do not know myself for two minutes together," she wrote. "What is my present mood, for example? Why, one of absolute and ungovernable hatred—hatred of the woman who would take my place if I were to retire from the stage. I have been thinking of it all the morning—picturing myself as an unknown nonentity, vanished from the eyes of the public, in a social grave. And I have to listen to people praising the new actress; and I have to read columns about her in the papers; and I am unable to say, 'Why, all that and more was written and said about me!' What has an actress to show for herself if once she leaves the stage? People forget her the next day; no record is kept of her triumphs. A painter, now, who spends years of his life in earnest study—it does not matter to him whether the public applaud or not, whether they forget or not. He has always before him these evidences of his genius; and among his friends he can choose his fit audience. Even when he is an old man, and listening to the praise of all the young fellows who have caught the taste of the public, he can, at all events, show something of his work as testimony of what he was. But an actress, the moment she leaves the stage, is a snuffed-out candle. She has her stage-dresses to prove that she acted certain parts; and she may have a scrap-book with cuttings of criticisms from the provincial papers! You know, dear Keith, all this is very heart-sickening; and I am quite aware that it will trouble you, as it troubles me, and sometimes makes me ashamed of myself; but then it is true, and it is better for both of us that it should be known. I could not undertake to be a hypocrite all my life. I must confess to you, whatever be the consequences, that I distinctly made a mistake when I thought it was such an easy thing to adopt a whole new set of opinions and tastes and habits. The old Adam, as your Scotch ministers would say, keeps coming back, to jog my elbow as an old familiar friend. And you would not have me conceal the fact from you? I know how difficult it will be for you to understand or sympathize with me. You have never been brought up to a profession, every inch of your progress in which you have to contest against rivals; and you don't know how jealous one is of one's position when it is gained. I think I would rather be made an old woman or sixty to-morrow morning, than get up and go out and find my name printed in small letters in the theatre-bills. And if I try to imagine what my feelings would be if I were to retire from the stage, surely that is in your interest as well as mine. How would you like to be tied for life to a person who was continually looking back to her past career with regret, and who was continually looking around her for objects of jealous and envious anger? Really, I try to do my duty by everybody. All the time I was at Castle Dare I tried to picture myself living there, and taking an interest in the fishing, and the farms, and so on; and if I was haunted by the dread that, instead of thinking about the fishing and the farms, I should be thinking of the triumphs of the actress who had taken my place in the attention of the public, I had to recognize the fact. It is wretched and pitiable, no doubt; but look at my training. If you tell me to be true to myself—that is myself. And at all events I feel more contented that I have made a frank-confession."
Surely it was a fair and reasonable letter? But the answer that came to it had none of its pleasant common-sense. It was all a wild appeal—a calling on her not to fall away from the resolves she had made—not to yield to those despondent moods. There was but the one way to get rid of her doubts and hesitations; let her at once cast aside the theatre, and all its associations and malign influences, and become his wife, and he would take her by the hand and lead her away from that besetting temptation. Could she forget the day on which she gave him the red rose? She was a woman; she could not forget.
She folded up the letter and held it in her hand, and went into her father's room. There was a certain petulant and irritated look on her face.
"He says he is coming up to London, papa," said she, abruptly.
"I suppose you mean Sir Keith Macleod," said he.
"Well, of course. And can you imagine anything more provoking—just at present, when we are rehearsing this new play, and when all the time I can afford Mr. Lemuel wants for the portrait? I declare the only time I feel quiet, secure, safe from the interference of anybody, and more especially the worry of the postman, is when I am having that portrait painted; the intense stillness of the studio is delightful, and you have beautiful things all around you. As soon as I open the door, I come out into the world again, with constant vexations and apprehensions all around. Why, I don't know but that at any minute Sir Keith Macleod may not come walking up to the gate!"
"And why should that possibility keep you in terror?" said her father, calmly.
"Well, not in terror," said she, looking down, "but—but anxiety, at least; and a very great deal of anxiety. Because I know he will want explanations, and promises, and I don't know what—just at the time I am most worried and unsettled about everything I mean to do."
Her father regarded her for a second or two.
"Well?" said he.
"Isn't that enough?" she said, with some indignation.
"Oh," said he, coldly, "you have merely come to me to pour out your tale of wrongs. You don't want me to interfere, I suppose. Am I to condole with you?"
"I don't know why you should speak to me like that, at all events," said she.
"Well, I will tell you," he responded, in the same cool, matter of fact way. "When you told me you meant to give up the theatre and marry Sir Keith Macleod, my answer was that you were likely to make a mistake. I thought you were a fool to throw away your position as an actress; but I did not urge the point. I merely left the matter in your own hands. Well, you went your own way. For a time your head was filled with romance—Highland chieftains, and gillies, and red-deer, and baronial halls, and all that stuff; and no doubt you persuaded that young man that you believed in the whole thing fervently, and there was no end to the names you called theatres and everybody connected with them. Not only that, but you must needs drag me up to the Highlands to pay a visit to a number of strangers with whom both you and I lived on terms of apparent hospitality and goodwill, but in reality on terms of very great restraint. Very well. You begin to discover that your romance was a little bit removed from the actual state of affairs—at least, you say so—"
"I say so!" she exclaimed.
"Hear me out," the father said, patiently. "I don't want to offend you, Gerty, but I wish to speak plainly. You have an amazing faculty for making yourself believe anything that suits you. I have not the least doubt but that you have persuaded yourself that the change in your manner toward Keith Macleod was owing to your discovering that their way of life was different from what you expected; or perhaps that you still had a lingering fancy for the stage—anything you like. I say you could make yourself believe anything. But I must point out to you that any acquaintance of yours—an outsider—would probably look on the marked attentions Mr. Lemuel has been paying you; and on your sudden conversion to the art-theories of himself and his friends; and on the revival of your ambitious notions about tragedy—"
"You need say no more," said she, with her face grown quickly red, and with a certain proud impatience in her look.
"Oh, yes, but I mean to say more," her father said, quietly, "unless you wish to leave the room. I mean to say this—that when you have persuaded yourself somehow that you would rather reconsider your promise to Sir Keith Macleod—am I right?—that it does seem rather hard that you should grow ill-tempered with him and accuse him of being the author of your troubles and vexations. I am no great friend of his—I disliked his coming here at the outset; but I will say he is a manly young fellow, and I know he would not try to throw the blame of any change in his own sentiments on to some one else. And another thing I mean to say is—that your playing the part of the injured Griselda is not quite becoming, Gerty: at all events, I have no sympathy with it. If you come and tell me frankly that you have grown tired of Macleod, and wish somehow to break your promise to him, then I can advise you."
"And what would you advise, then," said she, with equal calmness, "supposing that you choose to throw all the blame on me."
"I would say that it is a woman's privilege to be allowed to change her mind; and that the sooner you told him so the better."
"Very simple!" she said, with a flavor of sarcasm in her tone. "Perhaps you don't know that man as I know him."
"Then you are afraid of him?"
She was silent.
"These are certainly strange relations between two people who talk of getting married. But, in any case, he cannot suffocate you in a cave, for you live in London; and in London it is only an occasional young man about Shoreditch who smashes his sweetheart with a poker when she proposes to marry somebody else. He might, it is true, summon you for breach of promise; but he would prefer not to be laughed at. Come, come, Gerty, get rid of all this nonsense. Tell him frankly the position, and don't come bothering me with pretended wrongs and injuries."
"Do you think I ought to tell him?" said she, slowly.
She went away and wrote to Macleod; but she did not wholly explain her position. She only begged once more for time to consider her own feelings. It would be better that he should not come just now to London. And if she were convinced, after honest and earnest questioning of herself, that she had not the courage and strength of mind necessary for the great change in her life she had proposed, would it not be better for his happiness and hers that the confession should be made?
Macleod did not answer that letter, and she grew alarmed. Several days elapsed. One afternoon, coming home from rehearsal, she saw a card lying on the tray on the hall-table.
"Papa," said she, with her face somewhat paler than usual, "Sir Keith Macleod is in London!"
She was alone in the drawing-room. She heard the bell ring, and the sound of some one being let in by the front door. Then there was a man's step in the passage outside. The craven heart grew still with dread.
But it was with a great gentleness that he came forward to her, and took both of her trembling hands, and said,—
"Gerty, you do not think that I have come to be angry with you—not that!"
He could not but see with those anxious, pained, tender eyes of his that she was very pale; and her heart was now beating so fast—after the first shock of fright—that for a second or two she could not answer him. She withdrew her hands. And all this time he was regarding her face with an eager, wistful intensity.
"It is—so strange—for me to see you again," said he, almost in a bewildered way. "The days have been very long without you—I had almost forgotten what you were like. And now—and now—oh, Gerty, you are not angry with me for troubling you?"
She withdrew a step and sat down.
"There is a chair," said she. He did not seem to understand what she meant. He was trying to read her thoughts in her eyes, in her manner, in the pale face; and his earnest gaze did not leave her for a moment.
"I know you must be greatly troubled and worried, Gerty; and—and I tried not to come; but your last letter was like the end of the world for me. I thought everything might go then. But then I said, 'Are you a man, and to be cast down by that? She is bewildered by some passing doubt; her mind is sick for the moment; you must go to her, and recall her, and awake her to herself; and you will see her laugh again!' And so I am here, Gerty; and if I am troubling you at a bad time—well, it is only for a moment or two; and you will not mind that? You and I are so different, Gerty! You are all-perfect. You do not want the sympathy of any one. You are satisfied with your own thinkings; you are a world to yourself. But I cannot live without being in sympathy with you. It is a craving—it is like a fire—Well, I did not come here to talk about myself."
"I am sorry you took so much trouble," she said, in a low voice—and there was a nervous restraint in her manner. "You might have answered my letter, instead."
"Your letter!" he exclaimed. "Why Gerty, I could not talk to the letter. It was not yourself. It was no more part of yourself than a glove. You will forget that letter, and all the letters that ever you wrote; let them go away like the leaves of former autumns that are quite forgotten; and instead of the letters, be yourself—as I see you now—proud-spirited and noble—my beautiful Gerty—my wife!"
He make a step forward and caught her hand. She did not see that there were sudden tears in the imploring eyes. She only knew that this vehemence seemed to suffocate her.
"Keith," said she, and she gently disengaged her hand, "will you sit down, and we can talk over this matter calmly, if you please; but I think it would have been better if you left us both to explain ourselves in writing. It is difficult to say certain things without giving pain—and you know I don't wish to do that—"
"I know," said he, with an absent look on his face; and he took the chair she had indicated, and sat down beside her; and now he was no longer regarding her eyes.
"It is quite true that you and I are different," said she, with a certain resolution in her tone, as if she was determined to get through with a painful task—"very seriously different in everything—in our natures, and habits, and opinions, and all the rest of it. How we ever became acquainted I don't know; I am afraid it was not a fortunate accident for either of us. Well—"
Here she stopped. She had not prepared any speech; and she suddenly found herself without a word to say, when words, words, words were all she eagerly wanted in order to cover her retreat. And as for him, he gave her no help. He sat silent—his eyes downcast—a tired and haggard look on his face.
"Well," she resumed, with a violent effort, "I was saying, perhaps we made a mistake in our estimates of each other. That is a very common thing; and sometimes people find out in time, and sometimes they don't. I am sure you agree with me, Keith?"
"Oh yes, Gerty," he answered, absently.
"And then—and then—I am quite ready to confess that I may have been mistaken about myself; and I am afraid you encouraged the mistake. You know, I am quite sure, I am not the heroic person you tried to make me believe I was. I have found myself out, Keith; and just in time before making a terrible blunder. I am very glad that it is myself I have to blame. I have got very little resolution. 'Unstable as water'—that is the phrase: perhaps I should not like other people to apply it to me; but I am quite ready to apply it to myself; for I know it to be true; and it would be a great pity if any one's life were made miserable through my fault. Of course, I thought for a time that I was a very courageous and resolute person—you flattered me into believing it; but I have found myself out since. Don't you understand, Keith?"
He gave a sign of assent; his silence was more embarrassing than any protest or appeal.
"Oh, I could choose such a wife for you, Keith!—a wife worthy of you—a woman as womanly as you are manly; and I can think of her being proud to be your wife, and how all the people who came to your house would admire and love her—"
He looked up in a bewildered way.
"Gerty," he said, "I don't quite know what it is you are speaking about. You are speaking as if some strange thing had come between us; and I was to go one way, and you another, through all the years to come. Why, that is all nonsense! See! I can take your hand—that is the hand that gave me the red rose. You said you loved me, then; you cannot have changed already. I have not changed. What is there that would try to separate us? Only words, Gerty!—a cloud of words humming round the ears and confusing one. Oh, I have grown heart-sick of them in your letters, Gerty; until I put the letters away altogether, and I said, 'They are no more than the leaves of last autumn: when I see Gerty, and take her hand, all the words will disappear then.' Your hand is not made of words, Gerty; it is warm and kind, and gentle—it is a woman's hand. Do you think words are able to make me let go my grasp of it? I put them away—I do not hear any more of them. I only know that you are beside me, Gerty; and I hold your hand!"
He was no longer the imploring lover: there was a strange elation, a sort of triumph, in his tone.
"Why, Gerty, do you know why I have come to London? It is to carry you off—not with the pipes yelling to drown your screams, as Flora Macdonald's mother was carried off by her lover, but taking you by the hand, and waiting for the smile on your face. That is the way out of all our troubles, Gerty: we shall be plagued with no more words then. Oh, I understand it all, sweetheart—your doubts of yourself, and your thinking about the stage: it is all a return of the old and evil influences that you and I thought had been shaken off forever. Perhaps that was a little mistake; but no matter. You will shake them off now, Gerty. You will show yourself to have the courage of a woman. It is but one step, and you are free! Gerty," said he, with a smile on his face, "do you know what that is?"
He took from his pocket a printed document, and opened it. Certain words there that caught her eye caused her to turn even paler than she had been; and she would not even touch the paper. He put it back.
"Are you frightened, sweetheart? No! You will take this one step, and you will see how all those fancies and doubts will disappear forever! Oh, Gerty, when I got this paper into my pocket to-day, and came out into the street, I was laughing to myself; and a poor woman said, 'You are very merry, sir; will you give a poor old woman a copper?' 'Well,' I said, 'here is a sovereign for you, and perhaps you will be merry too?'—and I would have given every one a sovereign, if I had had it to give. But do you know what I was laughing at?—I was laughing to think what Captain Macallum would do when you went on board as my wife. For he put up the flags for you when you were only a visitor coming to Dare; but when I take you by the hand, Gerty, as you are going along the gangway, and when we get on to the paddle-box, and Captain Macallum comes forward, and when I tell him that you are now my wife, why, he will not know what to do to welcome you! And Hamish, too—I think Hamish will go mad that day. And then, sweetheart, you will go along to Erraidh, and you will go up to the signal-house on the rocks, and we will fire a cannon to tell the men at Dubh-Artach to look out. And what will be the message you will signal to them, Gerty, with the great white boards? Will you send them your compliments, which is the English way? Ah, but I know what they will answer to you. They will answer in the Gaelic; and this will be the answer that will come to you from the lighthouse—'A hundred thousand welcomes to the young bride!' And you will soon learn the Gaelic, too; and you will get used to our rough ways: and you will no longer have any fear of the sea. Some day you will get so used to us that you will think the very sea-birds to be your friends, and that they know when you are going away and when you are coming back, and that they know you will not allow any one to shoot at them or steal their eggs in the springtime. But if you would rather not have our rough ways, Gerty, I will go with you wherever you please—did I not say that to you, sweetheart? There are many fine houses in Essex—I saw them when I went down to Woodford with Major Stuart. And for your sake I would give up the sea altogether; and I would think no more about boats; and I would go to Essex with you if I was never to see one of the sea-birds again. That is what I will do for your sake, Gerty, if you wish; though I thought you would be kind to the poor people around us at Dare, and be proud of their love for you, and get used to our homely ways. But I will go into Essex, if you like, Gerty—so that the sea shall not frighten you; and you will never be asked to go into one of our rough boats any more. It shall be just as you wish, Gerty; whether you want to go away into Essex, or whether you will come away with me to the North, that I will say to Captain Macallum, 'Captain Macallum, what will you do, now that the English lady has been brave enough to leave her home and her friends to live with us? and what are we to do now to show that we are proud and glad of her coming?'"