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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 21. In London Again
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 21. In London Again Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1649

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 21. In London Again


On through the sleeping counties rushed the train--passing woods, streams, fertile valleys, and clustering villages, all palely shrouded in the faint morning mist that had a sort of suffused and hidden sunlight in it; the world had not yet awoke. But Macleod knew that, ere he reached London people would be abroad; and he almost shrank from meeting the look of those thousands of eager faces. Would not some of them guess his errand? Would he not be sure to run against a friend of hers--an acquaintance of his own? It was with a strange sense of fear that he stepped out and on to the platform at Euston Station; he glanced up and down; if she were suddenly to confront his eyes! A day or two ago it seemed as if innumerable leagues of ocean lay between him and her, so that the heart grew sick with thinking of the distance; now that he was in the same town with her, he felt so close to her that he could almost hear her breathe.

Major Stuart has enjoyed a sound night's rest, and was now possessed of quite enough good spirits and loquacity for two. He scarcely observed the silence of his companion. Together they rattled away through this busy, eager, immense throng, until they got down to the comparative quiet of Bury Street; and here they were fortunate enough to find not only that Macleod's old rooms were unoccupied, but that his companion could have the corresponding chambers on the floor above. They changed their attire; had breakfast; and then proceeded to discuss their plans for the day. Major Stuart observed that he was in no hurry to investigate the last modifications of the drying-machines. It would be necessary to write and appoint an interview before going down into Essex. He had several calls to make in London; if Macleod did not see him before, they should meet at seven for dinner. Macleod saw him depart without any great regret.

When he himself went outside it was already noon, but the sun had not yet broken through the mist, and London seemed cold, and lifeless, and deserted. He did not know of any one of his former friends being left in the great and lonely city. He walked along Piccadilly, and saw how many of the houses were shut up. The beautiful foliage of the Green Park had vanished; and here and there a red leaf hung on a withered branch. And yet, lonely as he felt in walking through this crowd of strangers, he was nevertheless possessed with a nervous and excited fear that at any moment he might have to quail before the inquiring glance of a certain pair of calm, large eyes. Was this, then, really Keith Macleod who was haunted by these fantastic troubles? Had he so little courage that he dared not go boldly up to her house and hold out his hand to her? As he walked along this thoroughfare, he was looking far ahead; and when any tall and slender figure appeared that might by any possibility be taken for hers, he watched it with a nervous interest that had something of dread in it. So much for the high courage born of love!

It was with some sense of relief that he entered Hyde Park, for here there were fewer people. And as he walked on, the day brightened. A warmer light began to suffuse the pale mist lying over the black-green masses of rhododendrons, the leafless trees, the damp grassplots, the empty chairs; and as he was regarding a group of people on horseback who, almost at the summit of the red hill, seemed about to disappear into the mist, behold! a sudden break in the sky; a silvery gleam shot athwart from the south, so that these distant figures grew almost black; and presently the frail sunshine of November was streaming all over the red ride and the raw green of the grass. His spirits rose somewhat. When he reached the Serpentine, the sunlight was shining on the rippling blue water; and there were pert young ladies of ten or twelve feeding the ducks; and away on the other side there was actually an island amidst the blue ripples; and the island, if it was not as grand as Staffa nor as green as Ulva, was nevertheless an island, and it was pleasant enough to look at, with its bushes, and boats, and white swans. And then he bethought him of his first walks by the side of this little lake--when Oscar was the only creature in London he had to concern himself with--when each new day was only a brighter holiday than its predecessor--when he was of opinion that London was the happiest and most beautiful place in the world; and of that bright morning, too, when he walked through the empty streets at dawn, and came to the peacefully flowing river.

These idle meditations were suddenly interrupted. Away along the bank of the lake his keen eye could make out a figure, which, even at that distance, seemed so much to resemble one he knew, that his heart began to beat quick. Then the dress--all of black, with a white hat and white gloves; was not that of the simplicity that had always so great an attraction for her? And he knew that she was singularly fond of Kensington Gardens; and might she not be going thither for a stroll before going back to the Piccadilly Theater? He hastened his steps. He soon began to gain on the stranger; and the nearer he got the more it seemed to him that he recognized the graceful walk and carriage of this slender woman. She passed under the archway of the bridge. When she had emerged from the shadow, she paused for a moment or two to look at the ducks on the lake; and this arch of shadow seemed to frame a beautiful sunlit picture--the single figure against a background of green bushes. And if this were indeed she, how splendid the world would all become in a moment! In his eagerness of anticipation he forgot his fear. What would she say? Was he to hear her laugh once more, and take her hand? Alas! When he got close enough to make sure, he found that his beautiful figure belonged to a somewhat pretty, middle-aged lady, who had brought a bag of scraps with her to feed the ducks. The world grew empty again. He passed on, in a sort of dream. He only knew he was in Kensington Gardens; and that once or twice he had walked with her down those broad alleys in the happy summer-time of flowers, and sunshine, and the scent of limes. Now there was a pale blue mist in the open glades; and a gloomy purple instead of the brilliant green of the trees; and the cold wind that came across rustled the masses of brown orange leaves that were lying scattered on the ground. He got a little more interested when he neared the Round Pond; for the wind had freshened; and there were several handsome craft out there on the raging deep, braving well the sudden squalls that laid them right on their beam-ends, and then let them come staggering and dripping up to windward. But there were two small boys there who had brought with them a tiny vessel of home-made build, with a couple of lugsails, a jib, and no rudder; and it was a great disappointment to them that this nondescript craft would move, if it moved at all, in an uncertain circle. Macleod came to their assistance--got a bit of floating stick, and carved out of it a rude rudder, altered the sails, and altogether put the ship into such sea-going trim that, when she was fairly launched, she kept a pretty good course for the other side, where doubtless she arrived in safety, and discharged her passengers and cargo. He was almost sorry to part with the two small ship-owners. They almost seemed to him the only people he knew in London.

But surely he had not come all the way from Castle Dare to walk about Kensington Gardens! What had become of that intense longing to see her--to hear her speak--that had made his life at home a constant torment and misery? Well, it still held possession of him; but all the same there was this indefinable dread that held him back. Perhaps he was afraid that he would have to confess to her the true reason for his having come to London. Perhaps he feared he might find her something entirely different from the creature of his dreams. At all events as he returned to his room and sat down by himself to think over all the things that might accrue from this step of his, he only got farther and farther into a haze of nervous indecision. One thing only was clear to him: with all his hatred and jealousy of the theatre, to the theatre that night he would have to go. He could not know that she was so near to him--that at a certain time and place he would certainly see her and listen to her--without going. He bethought him, moreover, of what he had once heard her say--that while she could fairly well make out the people in the galleries and boxes, those who were sitting in the stalls close to the orchestra were, by reason of the glare of the foot-lights, quite invisible to her. Might he not, then, get into some corner where, himself unseen, he might be so near to her that he could almost stretch out his hand to her and take her hand, and tell, by its warmth and throbbing, that it was a real woman, and not a dream, that filled his heart?

Major Stuart was put off by some excuse, and at eight o'clock Macleod walked up to the theatre. He drew near with some apprehension; it almost seemed to him as though the man in the box-office recognized him, and knew the reason for his demanding one of those stalls. He got it easily enough; there was no great run on the new piece, even though Miss Gertrude White was the heroine. He made his way along the narrow corridors; he passed into the glare of the house; he took his seat with his ears dinned by the loud music, and waited. He paid no heed to his neighbors; he had already twisted up the programme so that he could not have read it if he had wished; he was aware mostly of a sort of slightly choking sensation about the throat.

When Gertrude White did appear--she came in unexpectedly--he almost uttered a cry: and it would have been a cry of delight. For there was a flesh and blood woman, a thousand times more interesting, and beautiful, and lovable than all his fancied pictures of her. Look how she walks--how simply and gracefully she takes off her hat and places it on the table! Look at the play of light, and life, and gladness on her face--at the eloquence of her eyes! He had been thinking of her eyes as too calmly observant and serious: he saw them now, and was amazed at the difference--they seemed to have so much clear light in them, and pleasant laughter. He did not fear at all that she should see him. She was so near--he wished he could take her hand and lead her away. What concern had these people around with her? This was Gertrude White--whom he knew. She was a friend of Mrs. Ross's; she lived in a quiet little home, with an affectionate and provoking sister; she had a great admiration for Oscar the collie; she had the whitest hand in the world as she offered you some salad at the small, neat table. What was she doing here--amidst all this glaring sham--before all these people? "_Come away quickly!_" his heart cried to her. "_Quick--quick--let us get away together: there is some mistake--some illusion: outside you will breathe the fresh air, and get into the reality of the world again; and you will ask about Oscar, and young Ogilvie: and one might hold your hand--your real warm hand--and perhaps hold it tight, and not give it up to any one whatsoever!_" His own hand was trembling with excitement. The eagerness of delight with which he listened to every word uttered by the low-toned and gentle voice was almost painful; and yet he knew it not. He was as one demented. This was Gertrude White--speaking, walking, smiling, a fire of beauty in her clear eyes; her parted lips when she laughed letting the brilliant light just touch for an instant the milk-white teeth. This was no pale Rose Leaf at all--no dream or vision--but the actual laughing, talking, beautiful woman, who had more than ever of that strange grace and witchery about her that had fascinated him when first he saw her. She was so near that he could have thrown a rose to her--a red rose, full blown and full scented. He forgave the theatre--or rather he forgot it--in the unimaginable delight of being so near her. And when at length she left the stage, he had no jealousy of the poor people who remained there to go through their marionette business. He hoped they might all become great actors and actresses. He even thought he would try to get to understand the story--seeing he should have nothing else to do until Gertrude White came back again.

Now Keith Macleod was no more ignorant or innocent than anybody else; but there was one social misdemeanor--mere peccadillo, let us say--that was quite unintelligible to him. He could not understand how a man could go flirting after a married woman; and still less could he understand how a married woman should, instead of attending to her children and her house and such matters, make herself ridiculous by aping girlhood and pretending to have a lover. He had read a great deal about this, and he was told it was common; but he did not believe it. The same authorities assured him that the women of England were drunkards in secret; he did not believe it. The same authorities insisted that the sole notion of marriage that occupied the head of an English girl of our own day was as to how she should sell her charms to the highest bidder; he did not believe that either. And indeed he argued with himself, in considering to what extent books and plays could be trusted in such matters, that in one obvious case the absurdity of these allegations was proved. If France were the France of French playwrights and novelists, the whole business of the country would come to a standstill. If it was the sole and constant occupation of every adult Frenchman to run after his neighbor's wife, how could bridges be built, taxes collected, fortifications planned? Surely a Frenchman must sometimes think, if only by accident, of something other than his neighbor's wife? Macleod laughed to himself in the solitude of Castle Dare, and contemptuously flung the unfinished paper-covered novel aside.

But what was his surprise and indignation--his shame, even--on finding that this very piece in which Gertrude White was acting was all about a jealous husband, and a gay and thoughtless wife, and a villain who did not at all silently plot her ruin, but frankly confided his aspirations to a mutual friend, and rather sought for sympathy; while she, Gertrude White herself, had, before all these people, to listen to advances which, in her innocence, she was not supposed to understand. As the play proceeded, his brows grew darker and darker. And the husband, who ought to have been the guardian of his wife's honor? Well, the husband in this rather poor play was a creation that is common in modern English drama. He represented one idea at least that the English playwright has certainly not borrowed from the French stage. Moral worth is best indicated by a sullen demeanor. The man who has a pleasant manner is dangerous and a profligate; the virtuous man--the true-hearted Englishman--conducts himself as a boor, and proves the goodness of his nature by his silence and his sulks. The hero of this trumpery piece was of this familiar type. He saw the gay fascinator coming about his house; but he was too proud and dignified to interfere. He knew of his young wife becoming the byword of his friends; but he only clasped his hands on his forehead, and sought solitude, and scowled as a man of virtue should. Macleod had paid but little attention to stories of this kind when he had merely read them; but when the situation was visible--when actual people were before him--the whole thing looked more real, and his sympathies became active enough. How was it possible, he thought, for this poor dolt to fume and mutter, and let his innocent wife go her own way alone and unprotected, when there was a door in the room, and a window by way of alternative? There was one scene in which the faithless friend and the young wife were together in her drawing-room. He drew nearer to her; he spake softly to her; he ventured to take her hand. And while he was looking up appealingly to her, Macleod was regarding his face. He was calculating to himself the precise spot between the eyes where a man's knuckles would most effectually tell; and his hand was clinched, and his teeth set hard. There was a look on his face which would have warned any gay young man that when Macleod should marry, his wife would need no second champion.

But was this the atmosphere by which she was surrounded? It is needless to say that the piece was proper enough. Virtue was triumphant; vice compelled to sneak off discomfited. The indignant outburst of shame, and horror, and contempt on the part of the young wife, when she came to know what the villain's suave intentions really meant, gave Miss White an excellent opportunity of displaying her histrionic gifts; and the public applauded vehemently; but Macleod had no pride in her triumph. He was glad when the piece ended--when the honest-hearted Englishman so far recovered speech as to declare that his confidence in his wife was restored, and so far forgot his stolidity of face and demeanor as to point out to the villain the way to the door instead of kicking him thither. Macleod breathed more freely when he knew that Gertrude White was now about to go away to the shelter and quiet of her own home. He went back to his rooms, and tried to forget the precise circumstances in which he had just seen her.

But not to forget herself. A new gladness filled his heart when he thought of her--thought of her not now as a dream or a vision, but as the living and breathing woman whose musical laugh seemed still to be ringing in his ears. He could see her plainly--the face all charged with life and loveliness; the clear bright eyes that he had no longer any fear of meeting; the sweet mouth with its changing smiles. When Major Stuart came home that night he noticed a most marked change in the manner of his companion. Macleod was excited, eager, talkative; full of high spirits and friendliness; he joked his friend about his playing truant from his wife. He was anxious to know all about the major's adventures, and pressed him to have but one other cigar, and vowed that he would take him on the following evening to the only place in London where a good dinner could be had. There was gladness in his eyes, a careless satisfaction in his manner; he was ready to do anything, go anywhere. This was more like the Macleod of old. Major Stuart came to the conclusion that the atmosphere of London had had a very good effect on his friend's spirits.

When Macleod went to bed that night there were wild and glad desires and resolves in his brain that might otherwise have kept him awake but for the fatigue he had lately endured. He slept, and he dreamed; and the figure that he saw in his dreams--though she was distant, somehow--had a look of tenderness in her eyes, and she held a red rose in her hand.

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