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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 19. A Resolve
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 19. A Resolve Post by :andrewteg Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2999

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 19. A Resolve

CHAPTER XIX. A RESOLVE

He slept but little that night, and early the next morning he was up and away by himself--paying but little heed to the rushing blue seas, and the white gulls, and the sunshine touching the far sands on the shores of Iona. He was in a fever of unrest. He knew not what to make of that letter; it might mean anything or nothing. Alternations of wild hope and cold despair succeeded each other. Surely it was unusual for a girl so to reveal her innermost confidences to any one whom she considered a stranger? To him alone had she told this story of her private troubles. Was it not in effect asking for a sympathy which she could not hope for from any other? Was it not establishing a certain secret between them? Her own father did not know. Her sister was too young to be told. Friends like Mrs. Ross could not understand why this young and beautiful actress, the favorite of the public, could be dissatisfied with her lot. It was to him alone she had appealed.

And then again he read the letter. The very frankness of it made him fear. There was none of the shyness of a girl writing to one who might be her lover. She might have written thus to one of her school-companions. He eagerly searched it for some phrase of tenderer meaning; but no there was a careless abandonment about it, as if she had been talking without thinking of the person she addressed. She had even joked about a young man falling in love with her. It was a matter of perfect indifference to her. It was ludicrous as the shape of the lad's collar was ludicrous, but of no more importance. And thus she receded from his imagination again, and became a thing apart--the white slave bound in those cruel chains that seemed to all but herself and him the badges of triumph.

_Herself and him_--the conjunction set his heart throbbing quickly. He eagerly bethought himself how this secret understanding could be strengthened, if only he might see her and speak to her. He could tell by her eyes what she meant, whatever her words might be. _If only he could see her again: all his wild hopes, and fears, and doubts--all his vague fancies and imaginings--began to narrow themselves down to this one point; and this immediate desire became all-consuming. He grew sick at heart when he looked round and considered how vain was the wish.

The gladness had gone from the face of Keith Macleod. Not many months before, any one would have imagined that the life of this handsome young fellow, whose strength, and courage, and high spirits seemed to render him insensible to any obstacle, had everything in it that the mind of man could desire. He had a hundred interests and activities; he had youth and health, and a comely presence; he was on good terms with everybody around him--for he had a smile and a cheerful word for each one he met, gentle or simple. All this gay, glad life seemed to have fled. The watchful Hamish was the first to notice that his master began to take less and less interest in the shooting and boating and fishing; and at times the old man was surprised and disturbed by an exhibition of querulous impatience that had certainly never before been one of Macleod's failings. Then his cousin Janet saw that he was silent and absorbed; and his mother inquired once or twice why he did not ask one or other of his neighbors to come over to Dare to have a day's shooting with him.

"I think you are finding the place lonely, Keith, now that Norman Ogilvie is gone," said she.

"Ah, mother," he said, with a laugh, "it is not Norman Ogilvie, it is London, that has poisoned my mind. I should never have gone to the South. I am hungering for the fleshpots of Egypt already; and I am afraid some day I will have to come and ask you to let me go away again."

He spoke jestingly, and yet he was regarding his mother.

"I know it is not pleasant for a young man to be kept fretting at home," said she. "But it is not long now I will ask you to do that, Keith."

Of course this brief speech only drove him into more vigorous demonstration that he was not fretting at all; and for a time he seemed more engrossed than ever in all the occupations he had but recently abandoned. But whether he was on the hillside, or down in the glen, or out among the islands, or whether he was trying to satisfy the hunger of his heart with books long after every one in Castle Dare had gone to bed, he could not escape from this gnawing and torturing anxiety. It was no beautiful and gentle sentiment that possessed him--a pretty thing to dream about during a summer's morning--but, on the contrary, a burning fever of unrest, that left him peace nor day nor night. "Sudden love is followed by sudden hate," says the Gaelic proverb; but there had been no suddenness at all about this passion that had stealthily got hold of him; and he had ceased even to hope that it might abate or depart altogether. He had to "dree his weird." And when he read in books about the joy and delight that accompany the awakening of love--how the world suddenly becomes fair, and the very skies are bluer than their wont--he wondered whether he was different from other human beings. The joy and delight of love? He knew only a sick hunger of the heart and a continual and brooding despair.

One morning he was going along the cliffs, his only companion being the old black retriever, when suddenly he saw, far away below him, the figure of a lady. For a second his heart stood still at the sight of this stranger; for he knew it was neither the mother nor Janet; and she was coming along a bit of greensward from which, by dint of much climbing, she might have reached Castle Dare. But as he watched her he caught sight of some other figures, farther below on the rocks. And then he perceived--as he saw her return with a handful of bell-heather--that this party had come from Iona, or Bunessan, or some such place, to explore one of the great caves on this coast, while this lady had wandered away from them in search of some wild flowers. By and by he saw the small boat, with its spritsail white in the sun, go away toward the south, and the lonely coast was left as lonely as before.

But ever after that he grew to wonder what Gertrude White, if ever she could be persuaded to visit his home, would think of this thing and of that thing--what flowers she would gather--whether she would listen to Hamish's stories of the fairies--whether she would be interested in her small countryman, Johnny Wickes, who was now in kilts, with his face and legs as brown as a berry--whether the favorable heavens would send her sunlight and blue skies, and the moonlight nights reveal to her the solemn glory of the sea and the lonely islands. Would she take his hand to steady herself in passing over the slippery rocks? What would she say if suddenly she saw above her--by the opening of a cloud--a stag standing high on a crag near the summit of Ben-an-Sloich? And what would the mother and Janet say to that singing of hers, if they were to hear her put all the tenderness of the low, sweet voice into "Wae's me for Prince Charlie?"

There was one secret nook that more than any other he associated with her presence; and thither he would go when this heart-sickness seemed too grievous to be borne. It was down in a glen beyond the fir-wood; and here the ordinary desolation of this bleak coast ceased, for there were plenty of young larches on the sides of the glen, with a tall silver-birch or two; while down in the hollow there were clumps of alders by the side of the brawling stream. And this dell that he sought was hidden away from sight, with the sun but partially breaking through the alders and rowans, and bespeckling the great gray boulders by the side of the burn, many of which were covered by the softest of olive-green moss. Here, too, the brook, that had been broken just above by intercepting stones, swept clearly and limpidly over a bed of smooth rock; and in the golden-brown water the trout lay, and scarcely moved until some motion of his hand made them shoot up stream with a lightning speed. And then the wild flowers around--the purple ling and red bell-heather growing on the silver-gray rocks; a foxglove or two towering high above the golden-green breckans; the red star of a crane's-bill among the velvet moss. Even if she were overawed by the solitariness of the Atlantic and the gloom of the tall cliffs and their yawning caves, surely here would be a haven of peace and rest, with sunshine, and flowers, and the pleasant murmur of the stream. What did it say, then, as one sat and listened in the silence? When the fair poetess from strange lands came among the Macleods, did she seek out this still retreat, and listen, and listen, and listen until she caught the music of this monotonous murmur, and sang it to her harp? And was it not all a song about the passing away of life, and how that summer days were for the young, and how the world was beautiful for lovers? "Oh, children!" it seemed to say, "why should you waste your lives in vain endeavor, while the winter is coming quick, and the black snowstorms, and a roaring of wind from the sea? Here I have flowers for you, and beautiful sunlight, and the peace of summer days. Time passes--time passes--time passes--and you are growing old. While as yet the heart is warm and the eye is bright, here are summer flowers for you, and a silence fit for the mingling of lovers' speech. If you listen not, I laugh at you and go my way. But the winter is coming fast."

Far away in these grimy towns, fighting with mean cares and petty jealousies, dissatisfied, despondent, careless as to the future, how could this message reach her to fill her heart with the singing of a bird? He dared not send it, at all events. But he wrote to her. And the bitter travail of the writing of that letter he long remembered. He was bound to give her his sympathy, and to make light as well as he could of those very evils which he had been the first to reveal to her. He tried to write in as frank and friendly a spirit as she had done; the letter was quite cheerful.

"Did you know," said he, "that once upon a time the chief of the Macleods married a fairy? And whether Macleod did not treat her well, or whether the fairy-folk reclaimed her, or whether she grew tired of the place, I do not know quite; but, at all events, they were separated, and she went away to her own people. But before she went away she gave to Macleod a fairy banner--the _Bratach sith it is known as--and she told him that if ever he was in great peril, or had any great desire, he was to wave that flag, and whatever he desired would come to pass. But the virtue of the _Bratach sith would depart after it had been waved three times. Now the small green banner has been waved only twice; and now I believe it is still preserved in the Castle of Dunvegan, with power to work one more miracle on behalf of the Macleods. And if I had the fairy flag, do you know what I would do with it? I would take it in my hand, and say: '_I desire the fairy people to remove my friend Gertrude White from all the evil influences that disturb and distress her. I desire them to heal her wounded spirit, and secure for her everything that may tend to her lifelong happiness. And I desire that all the theatres in the kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland--with all their musical instruments, lime-light, and painted scenes--may be taken and dropped into the ocean, midway between the islands of Ulva and Coll, so that the fairy folk may amuse them selves in them if they will so please_.' Would not that be a very nice form of incantation? We are very strong believers here in the power of one person to damage another in absence; and when you can kill a man by sticking pins into a waxen image of him--which everybody knows to be true--surely you ought to be able to help a friend, especially with the aid of the _Bratach sith_. Imagine Covent Garden Theatre a hundred fathoms down in the deep sea, with mermaidens playing the brass instruments in the orchestra, and the fairy-folk on the stage, and seals disporting themselves in the stalls, and guillemots shooting about the upper galleries in pursuit of fish. But we should get no peace from Iona. The fairies there are very pious people. They used to carry St. Columba about when he got tired. They would be sure to demand the shutting up of all the theatres, and the destruction of the brass instruments. And I don't see how we could reasonably object."

It was a cruel sort of jesting; but how otherwise than as a jest could he convey to her, an actress, his wish that all theatres were at the bottom of the sea? For a brief time that letter seemed to establish some link of communication between him and her. He followed it on its travels by sea and land. He thought of its reaching the house in which she dwelt--perhaps some plain and grimy building in a great manufacturing city, or perhaps a small quiet cottage up by Regent's Park half hidden among the golden leaves of October. Might she not, moreover, after she had opened it and read it, be moved by some passing whim to answer it, though it demanded no answer? He waited for a week, and there was no word or message from the South. She was far away, and silent. And the hills grew lonelier than before, and the sickness of his heart increased.

This state of mind could not last. His longing and impatience and unrest became more than he could bear. It was in vain that he tried to satisfy his imaginative craving with these idle visions of her: it was she herself he must see; and he set about devising all manner of wild excuses for one last visit to the South. But the more he considered these various projects, the more ashamed he grew in thinking of his taking any one of them and placing it before the beautiful old dame who reigned in Castle Dare. He had barely been three months at home; how could he explain to her this sudden desire to go away again?

One morning his cousin Janet came to him.

"Oh, Keith!" said she, "the whole house is in commotion; and Hamish is for murdering some of the lads; and there is no one would dare to bring the news to you. The two young buzzards have escaped!"

"I know it," he said. "I let them out myself."

"You!" she exclaimed in surprise; for she knew the great interest he had shown in watching the habits of the young hawks that had been captured by a shepherd lad.

"Yes; I let them out last night. It was a pity to have them caged up."

"So long as it was yourself, it is all right," she said; and then she was going away. But she paused and turned, and said to him, with a smile, "And I think you should let yourself escape, too, Keith, for it is you too that are caged up; and perhaps you feel it now more since you have been to London. And if you are thinking of your friends in London, why should you not go for another visit to the South before you settle down to the long winter?"

For an instant he regarded her with some fear. Had she guessed his secret? Had she been watching the outward signs of this constant torture he had been suffering? Had she surmised that the otter-skins about which he had asked her advice were not consigned to any one of the married ladies whose acquaintance he had made in the South, and of whom he had chatted freely enough in Castle Dare? Or was this merely a passing suggestion thrown out by one who was always on the lookout to do a kindness?

"Well, I would like to go, Janet," he said, but with no gladness in his voice; "and it is not more than a week or two I should like to be away; but I do not think the mother would like it; and it is enough money I have spent this year already--"

"There is no concern about the money, Keith," said she, simply, "since you have not touched what I gave you. And if you are set upon it, you know auntie will agree to whatever you wish."

"But how can I explain to her? It is unreasonable to be going away."

How, indeed, could he explain? He was almost assuming that those gentle eyes now fixed on him could read his heart, and that she would come to aid him in his suffering without any further speech from him. And that was precisely what Janet Macleod did--whether or not she had guessed the cause of his desire to get away.

"If you were a schoolboy, Keith, you would be cleverer at making an excuse for playing truant," she said, laughing. "And I could make one for you now."

"You?"

"I will not call it an excuse, Keith," she said, "because I think you would be doing a good work; and I will bear the expense of it, if you please."

He looked more puzzled than ever.

"When we were at Salen yesterday I saw Major Stuart, and he has just came back from Dunrobin. And he was saying very great things about the machine for the drying of crops in wet weather, and he said he would like to go to England to see the newer ones and all the later improvements, if these was a chance of any one about here going shares with them. And it would not be very much. Keith, if you were to share with him; and the machine it can be moved about very well; and in the bad weather you could give the cotters some help, to say nothing about our own hay and corn. And that is what Major Stuart was saying yesterday, that if there was any place that you wanted a drying-machine for the crops it was in Mull."

"I have been thinking of it myself," he said, absently, "but our farm is too small to make it pay--"

"But if Major Stuart will take half the expense? And even if you lost a little, Keith, you would save a great deal to the poorer people who are continually losing their little patches of crops. And will you go and be my agent, Keith, to go and see whether it is practicable?"

"They will not thank you, Janet, for letting them have this help for nothing."

"They shall not have it for nothing," said she--for she had plenty of experience in dealing with the poorer folk around--"they must pay for the fuel that is used. And now, Keith, if it is a holiday you want, will not that be a very good holiday, and one to be used for a very good purpose, too?"

She left him. Where was the eager joy with which he ought to have accepted this offer? Here was the very means placed within his reach of satisfying the craving desire of his heart; and yet, all the same, he seemed to shrink back with a vague and undefined dread. A thousand impalpable fears and doubts beset his mind. He had grown timid as a woman. The old happy audacity had been destroyed by sleepless nights and a torturing anxiety. It was a new thing for Keith Macleod to have become a prey to strange unintelligible forebodings.

But he went and saw Major Stuart--a round, red, jolly little man, with white hair and a cheerful smile, who had a sombre and melancholy wife. Major Stuart received Macleod's offer with great gravity. It was a matter of business that demanded serious consideration. He had worked out the whole system of drying crops with hot air as it was shown him in pamphlets, reports, and agricultural journals, and he had come to the conclusion that--on paper at least--it could be made to pay. What was wanted was to give the thing a practical trial. If the system was sound, surely any one who helped to introduce it into the Western Highlands was doing a very good work indeed. And there was nothing but personal inspection could decide on the various merits of latest improvements.

This was what he said before his wife one night at dinner. But when the ladies had left the room, the little stout major suddenly put up both his hands, snapped his thumb and middle finger, and very cleverly executed one or two reel steps.

"By George! my boy," said he, with a ferocious grin on his face, "I think we will have a little frolic--a little frolic!--a little frolic! You were never shut up in a house for six months with a woman like my wife, were you, Macleod? You were never reminded of your coffin every morning, were you? Macleod, my boy, I am just mad to get after those drying-machines!"

And indeed Macleod could not have had a merrier companion to go South with him than this rubicund major just escaped from the thraldom of his wife. But it was with no such high spirits that Macleod set out. Perhaps it was only the want of sleep that had rendered him nerveless and morbid; but he felt, as he left Castle Dare, that there was a lie in his actions, if not in his words. And as for the future that lay before him, it was a region only of doubt, and vague regrets, and unknown fears; and he was entering upon it without any glimpse of light, and without the guidance of any friendly hand.

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