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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 18. Confidences
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 18. Confidences Post by :vbhnl Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :643

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 18. Confidences

CHAPTER XVIII. CONFIDENCES

For a second or two he held the letter in his hand, regarding the outside of it; and it was with more deliberation than haste that he opened it. Perhaps it was with some little tremor of fear--lest the first words that should meet his eye might be cruelly cold and distant. What right had he to expect anything else? Many a time, in thinking carefully over the past, he had recalled the words--the very tone--in which he had addressed her, and had been dismayed to think of their reserve, which had on one or two occasions almost amounted to austerity. He could expect little beyond a formal acknowledgment of the receiving of his letter, and the present that had accompanied it.

Imagine, then, his surprise when he took out from the envelope a number of sheets closely written over in her beautiful, small, neat hand. Hastily his eye ran over the first few lines; and then surprise gave way to a singular feeling of gratitude and joy. Was it indeed she who was writing to him thus? When he had been thinking of her as some one far away and unapproachable--who could have no thought of him or of the too brief time in which he had been near to her--had she indeed been treasuring up some recollection that she now seemed disposed to value?

"You will guess that I am woman enough," she wrote, "to be greatly pleased and flattered by your sending me such a beautiful present; but you must believe me when I say that its chief value to me was its showing me that I had another friend in the world who was not disposed to forget me the next day after bidding me good-bye. Perhaps you will say that I am cynical; but actresses are accustomed to find the friendships they make--outside the sphere of their own profession--of a singularly temporary character. We are praised and flattered to-day, and forgotten to-morrow. I don't complain. It is only natural. People go away to their own families and home occupations; why should they remember a person who has amused them for an hour?"

Miss Gertrude White could, when she chose, write a clever and interesting letter--interesting from its very simplicity and frankness; and as Macleod read on and on, he ceased to feel any wonder that this young lady should be placing before him such ample revelations of her experiences and opinions. Indeed, it was more than suggested in this confidential chat that Sir Keith Macleod himself had been the first cause of her having carefully studied her own position, and the influence likely to be exerted on her by her present mode of life.

"One meets with the harsher realities of an actress's life," she said, "in the provinces. It is all very fine in London, when all the friends you happen to have are in town, and where there is constant amusement, and pleasant parties, and nice people to meet; and then you have the comforts of your own home around you, and quiet and happy Sundays. But a provincial tour!--the constant travelling, and rehearsals with strange people, and damp lodgings, and miserable hotels, and wet Sundays in smoky towns! Papa is very good and kind, you know; but he is interested in his books, and he goes about all day hunting after curiosities, and one has not a soul to speak to. Then the audiences: I have witnessed one or two scenes lately that would unnerve any one; and of course I have to stand helpless and silent on the stage until the tumult is stilled and the original offenders expelled. Some sailors the other evening amused themselves by clambering down the top gallery to the pit, hanging on to the gas-brackets and the pillars; and one of them managed to reach the orchestra, jump from the drum on to the stage, and then offered me a glass of whiskey from a big black bottle he had in his hand. When I told papa, he laughed, and said I should be proud of my triumph over the man's imagination. But when the people roared with laughter at my discomfiture, I felt as though I would rather be earning my bread by selling watercresses in the street or by stitching in a garret."

Of course the cry of the poor injured soul found a ready echo in his heart. It was monstrous that she should be subjected to such indignities. And then that cruel old pagan of a father--was he not ashamed of himself to see the results of his own cold-blooded theories? Was this the glory of art? Was this the reward of the sacrifice of a life? That a sensitive girl should be publicly insulted by a tipsy maniac, and jeered at by a brutal crowd? Macleod laid down the letter for a minute or two, and the look on his face was not lovely to see.

"You may think it strange that I should write thus to you," she said; "but if I say that it was yourself who first set me thinking about such things? And since I have been thinking about them I have had no human being near me to whom I could speak. You know papa's opinions. Even if my dearest friend, Mrs. Ross, were here, what would she say? She has known me only in London. She thinks it a fine thing to be a popular actress. She sees people ready to pet me, in a way--so long as society is pleased to have a little curiosity about me. But she does not see the other side of the picture. She does not even ask how long all this will last. She never thinks of the cares and troubles and downright hard work. If ever you heard me sing, you will know that I have very little of a voice, and that not worth much; but trifling as it is, you would scarcely believe the care and cultivation I have to spend on it, merely for business purposes. Mrs. Ross, no doubt, sees that it is pleasant enough for a young actress, who is fortunate enough to have won some public favor, to go sailing in a yacht on the Thames, on a summer day, with nice companions around her. She does not see her on a wet day in Newcastle, practising scales for an hour at a stretch, though her throat is half choked with the fog, in a dismal parlor with a piano out of tune, and with the prospect of having to go out through the wet to a rehearsal in a damp and draughty theatre, with escaped gas added to the fog. That is very nice, isn't it?"

It almost seemed to him--so intense and eager was his involuntary sympathy--as though he himself were breathing fog, and gas, and the foul odors of an empty theatre. He went to the window and threw it open, and sat down there. The stars were no longer quivering white on the black surface of the water, for the moon had risen now in the south, and there was a soft glow all shining over the smooth Atlantic. Sharp and white was the light on the stone-walls of Castle Dare, and on the gravelled path, and the rocks and the trees around; but faraway it was a milder radiance that lay over the sea, and touched here and there the shores of Inch Kenneth and Ulva and Colonsay. It was a fair and peaceful night, with no sound of human unrest to break the sleep of the world. Sleep, solemn and profound, dwelt over the lonely islands--over Staffa, with her resounding caves, and Fiadda, with her desolate rocks, and Iona, with her fairy-white sands, and the distant Dutchman, and Coll, and Tiree, all haunted by the wild sea-birds' cry; and a sleep as deep dwelt over the silent hills, far up under the cold light of the skies. Surely, if any poor suffering heart was vexed by the contentions of crowded cities, here, if anywhere in the world, might rest and peace and loving solace be found. He sat dreaming there; he had half forgotten the letter.

He roused himself from his reverie, and returned to the light.

"And yet I would not complain of mere discomfort," she continued, "if that were all. People who have to work for their living must not be too particular. What pains me most of all is the effect that this sort of work is having on myself. You would not believe--and I am almost ashamed to confess--how I am worried by small and mean jealousies and anxieties, and how I am tortured by the expression of opinions which, all the same, I hold in contempt. I reason with myself to no purpose. It ought to be no concern of mine if some girl in a burlesque makes the house roar, by the manner in which she walks up and down the stage smoking a cigar; and yet I feel angry at the audience for applauding such stuff, and I wince when I see her praised in the papers. Oh! these papers! I have been making minute inquiries of late; and I find that the usual way in these towns is to let the young literary aspirant who has just joined the office, or the clever compositor who has been promoted to the sub-editor's room, try his hand first of all at reviewing books, and then turn him on to dramatic and musical criticism! Occasionally a reporter, who has been round the police courts to get notes of the night charges, will drop into the theatre on his way to the office, and 'do a par.,' as they call it. Will you believe it possible that the things written of me by these persons--with their pretentious airs of criticism, and their gross ignorance cropping up at every point--have the power to vex and annoy me most terribly? I laugh at the time, but the phrase rankles in my memory all the same. One learned young man said of me the other day: 'It is really distressing to mark the want of unity in her artistic characterizations when one regards the natural advantages that nature has heaped upon her with no sparing hand.' The natural advantages that nature has heaped upon me! 'And perhaps, also,' he went on to say, 'Miss White would do well to pay some little more attention before venturing on pronouncing the classic names of Greece. Iphigenia herself would not have answered to her name if she had heard it pronounced with the accent on the fourth syllable.'"

Macleod brought his fist down on the table with a bang.

"If I had that fellow," said he, aloud--"if I had that fellow, I should like to spin for a shark off Dubh Artach lighthouse." And here a most unholy vision rose before him of a new sort of sport--a sailing launch going about six knots an hour, a goodly rope at the stern with a huge hook through the gill of the luckless critic, a swivel to make him spin, and then a few smart trips up and down by the side of the lonely Dubh Artach rocks, where Mr. Ewing and his companions occasionally find a few sharks coming up to the surface to stare at them.

"Is it not too ridiculous that such things should vex me--that I should be so absolutely at the mercy of the opinion of people whose judgment I know to be absolutely valueless? I find the same thing all around me. I find a middle-aged man, who knows his work thoroughly, and has seen all the best actors of the past quarter of a century, will go about quite proudly with a scrap of approval from some newspaper, written by a young man who has never travelled beyond the suburbs of his native town, and has seen no acting beyond that of the local company. But there is another sort of critic--the veteran, the man who has worked hard on the paper and worn himself out, and who is turned off from politics, and pensioned by being allowed to display his imbecility in less important matters. Oh dear! what lessons he reads you! The solemnity of them! Don't you know that at the end of the second act the business of Mrs. So-and-So (some actress who died when George IV. was king) was this, that, or the other?--and how dare you, you impertinent minx, fly in the face of well-known stage traditions? I have been introduced lately to a specimen of both classes. I think the young man--he had beautiful long fair hair and a Byronic collar, and was a little nervous--fell in love with me, for he wrote a furious panegyric of me, and sent it next morning with a bouquet, and begged for my photograph. The elderly gentleman, on the other hand, gave me a great deal of good advice; but I subdued even him, for before he went away he spoke in a broken voice, and there were tears in his eyes, which papa said were owing to a variety of causes. It is ludicrous enough, no doubt, but it is also a little bit humiliating. I try to laugh the thing away, whether the opinion expressed about me is solemnly stupid or merely impertinent, but the vexation of it remains; and the chief vexation to me is that I should have so little command of myself, so little respect for myself, as to suffer myself to be vexed. But how can one help it? Public opinion is the very breath and life of a theatre and of every one connected with it; and you come to attach importance to the most foolish expression of opinion in the most obscure print."

"And so, my dear friend, I have had my grumble out--and made my confession too, for I should not like to let every one know how foolish I am about those petty vexations--and you will see that I have not forgotten what you said to me, and that further reflection and experience have only confirmed it. But I must warn you. Now that I have victimized you to this fearful extent, and liberated my mind, I feel much more comfortable. As I write, there is a blue color coming into the window that tells me the new day is coming. Would it surprise you if the new day brought a complete new set of feelings? I have begun to doubt whether I have got any opinions--whether, having to be so many different people in the course of a week, I have any clear notion as to what I myself am. One thing is certain, that I have been greatly vexed and worried of late by a succession of the merest trifles; and when I got your kind letter and present this evening, I suddenly thought, Now for a complete confession and protest. I know you will forgive me for having victimized you, and that as soon as you have thrown this rambling epistle into the fire you will try to forget all the nonsense it contains and will believe that I hope always to remain your friend,

"GERTRUDE WHITE."

His quick and warm sympathy refused to believe the half of this letter. It was only because she knew what was owing to the honor and self-respect of a true woman that she spoke in this tone of bitter and scornful depreciation of herself. It was clear that she was longing for the dignity and independence of a more natural way of life. And this revelation--that she was not, after all, banished forever into that cold region of art in which her father would fain keep her--somewhat bewildered him at first. The victim might be reclaimed from the altar and restored to the sphere of simple human affections, natural duties, and joy? And if he--

Suddenly, and with a shock of delight that made his heart throb, he tried to picture this beautiful fair creature sitting over there in that very chair by the side of the fire, her head bent down over her sewing, the warm light of the lamp touching the tender curve of her cheek. And when she lifted her head to speak to him--and when her large and lambent eyes met his--surely Fionaghal, the fair poetess from strange lands, never spoke in softer tones than this other beautiful stranger, who was now his wife and his heart's companion. And now he would bid her lay aside her work, and he would get a white shawl for her, and like a ghost she would steal out with him into the moonlight air. And is there enough wind on this summer night to take them out from the sombre shore to the open plain of the sea? Look now, as the land recedes, at the high walls of Castle Dare, over the black cliffs, and against the stars. Far away they see the graveyard of Inch Kenneth, the stones pale in the moonlight. And what song will she sing now, that Ulva and Colonsay may awake and fancy that some mermaiden is singing to bewail her lost lover? The night is sad, and the song is sad; and then, somehow, he finds himself alone in this waste of water, and all the shores of the islands are silent and devoid of life, and there is only the echo of the sad singing in his ears--

He jumps to his feet, for there is a knocking at the door. The gentle Cousin Janet enters, and hastily he thrusts that letter into his pocket, while his face blushes hotly.

"Where have you been, Keith?" she says, in her quiet, kindly way. "Auntie would like to say good-night to you now."

"I will come directly," said he.

"And now that Norman Ogilvie is away, Keith," said she, "you will take more rest about the shooting; for you have not been looking like yourself at all lately; and you know, Keith, when you are not well and happy, it is no one at all about Dare that is happy either. And that is why you will take care of yourself."

He glanced at her rather uneasily; but he said, in a light and careless way,--

"Oh, I have been well enough, Janet, except that I was not sleeping well one or two nights. And if you look after me like that, you will make me think I am a baby, and you will send me some warm flannels when I go up on the hills."

"It is too proud of your hardihood you are, Keith," said his cousin, with a smile. "But there never was a man of your family who would take any advice."

"I would take any advice from you, Janet," said he; and therewith he followed her to bid good-night to the silver-haired mother.

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