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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 20. Otter-Skins
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 20. Otter-Skins Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2360

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 20. Otter-Skins

CHAPTER XX. OTTER-SKINS

"AH, pappy," said Miss Gertrude White to her father and she pretended to sigh as she spoke--"this is a change indeed!"

They were driving up to the gate of the small cottage in South Bank. It was the end of October. In the gardens they passed the trees were almost bare; though such leaves as hung sparsely on the branches of the chestnuts and maples were ablaze with russet and gold in the misty sunshine.

"In another week," she continued, "there will not be a leaf left. I dare say there is not a single geranium in the garden. All hands on deck to pipe a farewell:

'Ihr Matten, lebt wohl,
Ihr sonnigen Weiden
Der Senne muss scheiden,
Der Sommer ist hin.'

Farewell to the blue mountains of Newcastle, and the sunlit valleys of Liverpool, and the silver waterfalls of Leeds; the summer is indeed over; and a very nice and pleasant summer we have had of it."

The flavor of sarcasm running through this affected sadness vexed Mr. White, and he answered, sharply,

"I think you have little reason to grumble over a tour which has so distinctly added to your reputation."

"I was not aware," said she, with a certain careless sauciness of manner, "that an actress was allowed to have a reputation; at least, there are always plenty of people anxious enough to take it away."

"Gertrude," said he, sternly, "what do you mean by this constant carping? Do you wish to cease to be an actress? Or what in all the world do you want?"

"To cease to be an actress?" she said, with a mild wonder, and with the sweetest of smiles, as she prepared to get out of the open door of the cab. "Why, don't you know; pappy, that a leopard cannot change his spots, or an Etheopian his skin? Take care of the step, pappy! That's right. Come here, Marie, and give the cabman a hand with this portmanteau."

Miss White was not grumbling at all--but, on the contrary, was quite pleasant and cheerful--when she entered the small house and found herself once more at home.

"Oh, Carry," she said, when her sister followed her into her room; "you don't know what it is to get back home, after having been bandied from one hotel to another hotel, and from one lodging-house to another lodging-house, for goodness knows how long."

"Oh, indeed!" said Miss Carry, with such marked coldness that her sister turned to her.

"What is the matter with you?"

"What is the matter with _you?_" the younger sister retorted, with sudden fire. "Do you know that your letters to me have been quite disgraceful?"

"You are crazed, child--you wrote something about it the other day--I could not make out what you meant," said Miss White; and she went to the glass to see that the beautiful brown hair had not been too much disarranged by the removal of her bonnet.

"It is you are crazed, Gertrude White," said Carry, who had apparently picked up from some melodrama the notion that it was rather effective to address a person by her full name. "I am really ashamed of you--that you should have let yourself be bewitched by a parcel of beasts' skins. I declare that your ravings about the Highlands, and fairies, and trash of that sort, have been only fit for a penny journal--"

Miss White turned and stared--as well she might. This indignant person of fourteen had flashing eyes and a visage of wrath. The pale, calm, elder sister only remarked, in that deep-toned and gentle voice of hers,

"Your language is pretty considerably strong, Carry. I don't know what has aroused such a passion in you. Because I wrote to you about the Highlands? Because I sent you that collection of legends? Because it seemed to me, when I was in a wretched hotel in some dirty town, I would rather be away yachting or driving with some one of the various parties of people whom I know, and who had mostly gone to Scotland this year? If you are jealous of the Highlands, Carry, I will undertake to root out the name of every mountain and lake that has got hold of my affections."

She was turning away again, with a quiet smile on her face, when her younger sister arrested her.

"What's that?" said she, so sharply, and extending her forefinger so suddenly, that Gertrude almost shrank back.

"What's what?" she said, in dismay--fearing, perhaps, to hear of an adder being on her shoulder.

"You know perfectly well," said Miss Carry, vehemently, "it is the Macleod tartan!"

Now the truth was that Miss White's travelling-dress was of an unrelieved gray; the only scrap of color about her costume being a tiny thread of tartan ribbon that just showed in front of her collar.

"The Macleod tartan?" said the eldest sister, demurely. "And what if it were the Macleod tartan?"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Gerty! There was quite enough occasion for people to talk in the way he kept coming here; and now you make a parade of it; you ask people to look at you wearing a badge of servitude--you say, 'Oh, here I am; and I am quite ready to be your wife when you ask me, Sir Keith Macleod!'"

There was no flush of anger in the fair and placid face; but rather a look of demure amusement in the downcast eyes.

"Dear me, Carry!" said she, with great innocence, "the profession of an actress must be looking up in public estimation when such a rumor as that could even get into existence. And so people have been so kind as to suggest that Sir Keith Macleod, the representative of one of the oldest and proudest families in the kingdom, would not be above marrying a poor actress who has her living to earn, and who is supported by the half-crowns and half-sovereigns of the public? And indeed I think it would look very well to have him loitering about the stage-doors of provincial theatres until his wife should be ready to come out; and would he bring his gillies, and keepers, and head-foresters, and put them into the pit to applaud her? Really, the role you have cut out for a Highland gentleman--"

"A Highland gentleman!" exclaimed Carry. "A Highland pauper! But you are quite right, Gerty, to laugh at the rumor. Of course it is quite ridiculous. It is quite ridiculous to think that an actress whose fame is all over England--who is sought after by everybody, and the popularest favorite ever seen--would give up everything and go away and marry an ignorant Highland savage, and look after his calves and his cows and hens for him. That is indeed ridiculous, Gerty."

"Very well, then, put it out of your mind; and never let me hear another word about it," said the popularest favorite, as she undid the bit of tartan ribbon; "and if it is any great comfort to you to know, this is not the Macleod tartan but the MacDougal tartan, and you may put it in the fire if you like."

Saying which, she threw the bit of costume which had given so great offence on the table. The discomfited Carry looked at it, but would not touch it. At last she said,

"Where are the skins, Gerty?"

"Near Castle Dare," answered Miss White, turning to get something else for her neck; "there is a steep hill, and the road comes over it. When you climb to the top of the hill and sit down, the fairies will carry you right to the bottom if you are in a proper frame of mind. But they won't appear at all unless you are at peace with all men. I will show you the skins when you are in a proper frame of mind, Carry."

"Who told you that story?" she asked quickly.

"Sir Keith Macleod," the elder sister said, without thinking.

"Then he has been writing to you?"

"Certainly."

She marched out of the room. Gertrude White, unconscious of the fierce rage she had aroused, carelessly proceeded with her toilet, trying now one flower and now another in the ripples of her sun-brown hair, but finally discarding these half-withered things for a narrow band of blue velvet.

"Threescore o' nobles rode up the king's ha',"

she was humming thoughtlessly to herself as she stood with her hands uplifted to her head, revealing the beautiful lines of her figure,

"But Bonnie Glenogie's the flower o' them a';
Wi' his milk-white steed and his coal-black e'e:
Glenogie, dear mither, Glenogie for me!"

At length she had finished, and was ready to proceed to her immediate work of overhauling domestic affairs. When Keith Macleod was struck by the exceeding neatness and perfection of arrangement in this small house, he was in nowise the victim of any stage-effect. Gertrude White was at all times and in all seasons a precise and accurate house-mistress. Harassed, as an actress must often be, by other cares; sometimes exhausted with hard work; perhaps tempted now and again by the self-satisfaction of a splendid triumph to let meaner concerns go unheeded; all the same, she allowed nothing to interfere with her domestic duties.

"Gerty," her father said, impatiently, to her a day or two before they left London for the provinces, "what is the use of your going down to these stores yourself? Surely you can send Jane or Marie. You really waste far too much time over the veriest trifles: how can it matter what sort of mustard we have?"

"And, indeed, I am glad to have something to convince me that I am a human being and a woman," she had said, instantly, "something to be myself in. I believe Providence intended me to be the manager of a Swiss hotel."

This was one of the first occasions on which she had revealed to her father that she had been thinking a good deal about her lot in life, and was perhaps beginning to doubt whether the struggle to become a great and famous actress was the only thing worth living for. But he paid little attention to it at the time. He had a vague impression that it was scarcely worth discussing about. He was pretty well convinced that his daughter was clever enough to argue herself into any sort of belief about herself, if she should take some fantastic notion into her head. It was not until that night in Manchester that he began to fear there might be something serious in these expressions of discontent.

On this bright October morning Miss Gertrude White was about to begin her domestic inquiries, and was leaving her room humming cheerfully to herself something about the bonnie Glenogie of the song, when she was again stopped by her sister, who was carrying a bundle.

"I have got the skins," she said, gloomily. "Jane took them out."

"Will you look at them?" the sister said, kindly. "They are very pretty. If they were not a present, I would give them to you, to make a jacket of them."

"_I wear them?" said she. "Not likely!"

Nevertheless she had sufficient womanly curiosity to let her elder sister open the parcel; and then she took up the otter-skins one by one, and looked at them.

"I don't think much of them," she said.

The other bore this taunt patiently.

"They are only big moles, aren't they? And I thought moleskin was only worn by working-people."

"I am a working-person too," Miss Gertrude White said: "but, in any case, I think a jacket of these skins will look lovely."

"Oh, do you think so? Well, you can't say much for the smell of them."

"It is no more disagreeable than the smell of a sealskin jacket."

She laid down the last of the skins with some air of disdain.

"It will be a nice series of trophies, anyway--showing you know some one who goes about spending his life in killing inoffensive animals."

"Poor Sir Keith Macleod! What has he done to offend you, Carry?"

Miss Carry turned her head away for a minute; but presently she boldly faced her sister.

"Gerty, you don't mean to marry a beauty man!"

Gerty looked considerably puzzled; but her companion continued, vehemently,--

"How often have I heard you say you would never marry a beauty man--a man who has been brought up in front of the looking-glass--who is far too well satisfied with his own good looks to think of anything or anybody else! Again and again you have said that, Gertrude White. You told me, rather than marry a self-satisfied coxcomb, you would marry a misshapen, ugly little man, so that he would worship you all the days of your life for your condescension and kindness."

"Very well, then!"

"And what is Sir Keith Macleod but a beauty man?"

"He is not!" and for once the elder sister betrayed some feeling in the proud tone of her voice. "He is the manliest-looking man that I have ever seen; and I have seen a good many more men than you. There is not a man you know whom he could not throw across the canal down there. Sir Keith Macleod a beauty man!--I think he could take on a good deal more polishing, and curling, and smoothing without any great harm. If I was in any danger, I know which of all the men I have seen I would rather have in front of me--with his arms free; and I don't suppose he would be thinking of any looking-glass! If you want to know about the race he represents, read English history, and the story of England's wars. If you go to India, or China, or Africa, or the Crimea, you will hear something about the Macleods, I think!"

Carry began to cry.

"You silly thing, what is the matter with you?" Gertrude White exclaimed; but of course her arm was round her sister's neck.

"It is true, then."

"What is true?"

"What people say."

"What do people say?"

"That you will marry Sir Keith Macleod."

"Carry!" she said, angrily, "I can't imagine who has been repeating such idiotic stories to you, I wish people would mind their own business. Sir Keith Macleod marry me!"

"Do you mean to say he has never asked you?" Carry said, disengaging herself, and fixing her eyes on her sister's face.

"Certainly not!" was the decided answer; but all the same, Miss Gertrude White's forehead and cheeks flushed slightly.

"Then you know that he means to; and that is why you have been writing to me, day after day, about the romance of the Highlands, and fairy stories, and the pleasure of people who could live without caring for the public. Oh, Gerty, why won't you be frank with me, and let me know the worst at once?"

"If I gave you a box on the ears," she said, laughing, "that would be the worst at once; and I think it would serve you right for listening to such tittle-tattle and letting your head be filled with nonsense. Haven't you sufficient sense to know that you ought not to compel me to speak of such a thing--absurd as it is? I cannot go on denying that I am about to become the wife of Tom, Dick, or Harry; and you know the stories that have been going about for years past. Who was I last? The wife of a Russian nobleman who gambled away all my earnings at Homburg. You are fourteen now, Carry; you should have more sense."

Miss Carry dried her eyes; but she mournfully shook her head. There were the otter-skins lying on the table. She had seen plenty of the absurd paragraphs about her sister which good-natured friends had cut out of provincial and foreign papers and forwarded to the small family at South Bank. But the mythical Russian nobleman had never sent a parcel of otter-skins. These were palpable and not to be explained away. She sorrowfully left the room, unconvinced.

And now Miss Gertrude White set to work with a will; and no one who was only familiar with her outside her own house would have recognized in this shifty, practical, industrious person, who went so thoroughly into all the details of the small establishment, the lady who, when she went abroad among the gayeties of the London season, was so eagerly sought after, and flattered, and petted, and made the object of all manner of delicate attentions. Her father, who suspected that her increased devotion to these domestic duties was but part of that rebellious spirit she had recently betrayed, had nevertheless to confess that there was no one but herself whom he could trust to arrange his china and dust his curiosities. And how could he resent her giving instructions to the cook, when it was his own dinner that profited thereby?

"Well, Gerty," he said that evening after dinner, "what do you think about Mr. ----'s offer? It is very good-natured of him to let you have the ordering of the drawing-room scene, for you can have the furniture and the color to suit your own costume."

"Indeed I shall have nothing whatever to do with it," said she, promptly. "The furniture at home is enough for me. I don't wish to become the upholsterer of a theatre."

"You are very ungrateful, then. Half the effect of a modern comedy is lost because the people appear in rooms which resemble nothing at all that people ever lived in. Here is a man who gives you _carte blanche to put a modern drawing-room on the stage; and your part would gain infinitely from having real surroundings. I consider it a very flattering offer."

"And perhaps it is, pappy," said she, "but I think I do enough if I get through my own share of the work. And it is very silly of him to want me to introduce a song into this part, too. He knows I can't sing--"

"Gerty!" her sister said.

"Oh, you know as well as I. I can get through a song well enough in a room; but I have not enough voice for a theatre; and although he says it is only to make the drawing-room scene more realistic--and that I need not sing to the front--that is all nonsense. I know what it is meant for--to catch the gallery. Now I refuse to sing for the gallery."

This was decided enough.

"What was the song you put into your last part, Gerty?" her sister asked. "I saw something in the papers about it."

"It was a Scotch one, Carry; I don't think you know it."

"I wonder it was not a Highland one," her sister said, rather spitefully.

"Oh, I have a whole collection of Highland ones now, would you like to hear one? Would you, pappy?"

She went and fetched the book, and opened the piano.

"It is an old air that belonged to Scarba," she said, and then she sang, simply and pathetically enough, the somewhat stiff and cumbrous English translation of the Gaelic words. It was the song of the exiled Mary Macleod, who, sitting on the shores of "sea-worn Mull," looks abroad on the lonely islands of Scarba, and Islay, and Jura, and laments that she is far away from her own home.

"How do you like it, pappy?" she said, when she had finished. "It is a pity I do not know the Gaelic. They say that when the chief heard these verses repeated, he let the old woman go back to her own home."

One of the two listeners, at all events, did not seem to be particularly struck by the pathos of Mary Macleod's lament. She walked up to the piano.

"Where did you get that book, Gerty?" she said, in a firm voice.

"Where?" said the other, innocently. "In Manchester, I think it was, I bought it."

But before she had made the explanation, Miss Carry, convinced that this, too, had come from her enemy, had seized the book and turned to the title-page. Neither on title-page nor on fly-leaf, however, was there any inscription.

"Did you think it had come with the otter-skins, Carry?" the elder sister said, laughing; and the younger one retired, baffled and chagrined, but none the less resolved that before Gertrude White completely gave herself up to this blind infatuation for a savage country and for one of its worthless inhabitants, she would have to run the gauntlet of many a sharp word of warning and reproach.

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