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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 25. In Sussex
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 25. In Sussex Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1481

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 25. In Sussex

CHAPTER XXV. IN SUSSEX

But as for him, there was no moderation at all in the vehemence of his joy. In the surprise and bewilderment of it, the world around him underwent transfiguration; London in November was glorified into an earthly paradise. The very people in the streets seemed to have kindly faces; Bury Street, St. James's--which is usually a somewhat misty thoroughfare--was more beautiful than the rose-garden of an Eastern king. And on this Saturday afternoon the blue skies did, indeed, continue to shine over the great city; and the air seemed sweet and clear enough, as it generally does to any one whose every heart-beat is only another throb of conscious gladness.

In this first intoxication of wonder, and pride, and gratitude, he had forgotten all about these ingenious theories which, in former days, he had constructed to promise to himself that Gertrude White should give up her present way of life. Was it true, then, that he had rescued the white slave? Was it once and forever that Nature, encountering the subtle demon of Art, had closed and wrestled with the insidious thing, had seized it by the throat, and choked it, and flung it aside from the fair roadway of life? He had forgotten about these things now. All that he was conscious of was this eager joy, with now and again a wild wonder that he should indeed have acquired so priceless a possession. Was it possible that she would really withdraw herself from the eyes of all the world and give herself to him alone?--that some day, in the beautiful and laughing future, the glory of her presence would light up the dull halls of Castle Dare?

Of course he poured all his pent-up confidence into the ear of the astonished major, and again and again expressed his gratitude to his companion for having given him the opportunity of securing this transcendent happiness. The major was somewhat frightened. He did not know in what measure he might be regarded as an accomplice by the silver-haired lady of Castle Dare. And in any case he was alarmed by the vehemence of the young man.

"My dear Macleod," said he, with an oracular air, "you never have any hold on yourself. You fling the reins on the horse's neck, and gallop down hill; a very slight check would send you whirling to the bottom. Now, you should take the advice of a man of the world, who is older than you, and who--if I may say so--has kept his eyes open. I don't want to discourage you; but you should take it for granted that accidents may happen. I would feel the reins a little bit, if I were you. Once you've got her into the church, and see her with a white veil over her head, then you may be as perfervid as you like--"

And so the simple-minded major prattled on, Macleod paying but little heed. There had been nothing about Major Stuart's courtship and marriage to shake the world: why, he said to himself, when the lady was pleased to lend a favoring ear, was there any reason for making such a fuss?

"Your happiness will all depend on one thing," said he to Macleod, with a complacent wisdom in the round and jovial face. "Take my word for it. I hear of people studying the character, the compatibilities, and what not, of other people; but I never knew of a young man thinking of such things when he was in love. He plunges in, and finds out afterward. Now it all comes this--is she likely, or not likely, to prove a sigher?"

"A what?" said Macleod, apparently awakening from a trance.

"A sigher. A woman who goes about the house all day sighing, whether over your sins or her own, she won't tell you."

"Indeed, I cannot say," Macleod said, laughing. "I should hope not. I think she has excellent spirits."

"Ah!" said the major, thoughtfully; and he himself sighed. Perhaps he was thinking of a certain house far away in Mull, to which he had shortly to return.

Macleod did not know how to show his gratitude toward this good-natured friend. He would have given him half a dozen banquets a day; and Major Stuart liked a London dinner. But what he did offer as a great reward was this: that Major Stuart should go up the next morning to a particular church, and take up a particular position in the church, and then--then he would get a glimpse of the most wonderful creature the world had seen. Oddly enough, the major did not eagerly accept this munificent offer. To another proposal--that he should go up to Mr. White's, on the first day after their return from Sussex, and meet the young lady at luncheon--he seemed better inclined.

"But why shouldn't we go to the theatre to-night?" said he, in his simple way.

Macleod looked embarrassed.

"Frankly, then, Stuart," said he, "I don't want you to make her acquaintance as an actress."

"Oh, very well," said he, not greatly disappointed. "Perhaps it is better. You see, I may be questioned at Castle Dare. Have you considered that matter?"

"Oh no," Macleod said, lightly and cheerfully, "I have had time to consider nothing as yet. I can scarcely believe it to be all real. It takes a deal of hard thinking to convince myself that I am not dreaming."

But the true fashion in which Macleod showed his gratitude to his friend was in concealing his great reluctance on going down with him into Sussex. It was like rending his heart-strings for him to leave London for a single hour at this time. What beautiful confidences, and tender, timid looks, and sweet, small words he was leaving behind him in order to go and shoot a lot of miserable pheasants! He was rather gloomy when he met the major at Victoria Station. They got into the train; and away through the darkness of the November afternoon they rattled to Three Bridges; but all the eager sportsman had gone out of him, and he had next to nothing to say in answer to the major's excited questions. Occasionally he would rouse himself from this reverie, and he would talk in a perfunctory sort of fashion about the immediate business of a moment. He confessed that he had a certain theoretical repugnance to a _battue_, if it were at all like what people in the newspapers declared it to be. On the other hand, he could not well understand--judging by his experiences in the highlands--how the shooting of driven birds could be so marvellously easy; and he was not quite, sure that the writers he had referred to had had many opportunities of practising, or even observing, so very expensive an amusement. Major Stuart, for his part, freely admitted that he had no scruples whatever. Shooting birds, he roundly declared, was shooting birds, whether you shot two or two score. And he demurely hinted that, if he had his choice, he would rather shoot the two score.

"Mind you, Stuart," Macleod said, "if we are posted anywhere near each other--mind you shoot at any bird that comes my way. I should like you to make a big bag that you may talk about in Mull; and I really don't care about it."

And this was the man whom Miss Carry had described as being nothing but a slayer of wild animals and a preserver of beasts' skins! Perhaps, in that imaginary duel between Nature and Art, the enemy was not so thoroughly beaten and thrown aside, after all.

So they got to Three Bridges, and there they found the carriage awaiting them; and presently they were whirling away along the dark roads, with the lamps shining alternately on a line of hedge or on a long stretch of ivied brick wall. And at last they passed a lodge gate, and drove through a great and silent park; and finally, rattling over the gravel, drew up in front of some gray steps and a blaze of light coming from the wide-open doors. Under Lord Beauregard's guidance, they went into the drawing-room, and found a number of people idly chatting there, or reading by the subdued light of the various lamps on the small tables. There was a good deal of talk about the weather. Macleod, vaguely conscious that these people were only strangers, and that the one heart that was thinking of him was now far away, paid but little heed; if he had been told that the barometer predicted fifteen thunder-storms for the morrow, he would have been neither startled nor dismayed.

But he managed to say to his host, aside:--

"Beauregard, look here. I suppose, in this sort of shooting, you have some little understanding with your head-keeper about the posts--who is to be a bit favored, you know. Well, I wish you would ask him to look after my friend Stuart. He can leave me out altogether, if he likes."

"My dear fellow, there will be scarcely any difference; but I will look after your friend myself. I suppose you have no guns with you?"

"I have borrowed Ogilvie's. Stuart has none."

"I will get one for him."

By and by they went upstairs to their respective rooms, and Macleod was left alone, that is to say, he was scarcely aware of the presence of the man who was opening his portmanteau and putting out his things. He lay back in the low easy-chair, and stared absently into the blazing fire. This was a beautiful but a lonely house. There were many strangers in it. But if she had been one of the people below--if he could at this moment look forward to meeting her at dinner--if there was a chance of his sitting beside her and listening to the low and sweet voice--with what an eager joy he would have waited for the sound of the bell! As it was, his heart was in London. He had no sort of interest in this big house, or in the strangers whom he had met, or in the proceedings of the morrow, about which all the men were talking. It was a lonely house.

He was aroused by a tapping at the door.

"Come in," he said, and Major Stuart entered, blooming and roseate over his display of white linen.

"Good gracious!" said he, "aren't you dressed yet? It wants but ten minutes to dinner-time. What have you been doing?"

Macleod jumped up with some shamefacedness, and began to array himself quickly.

"Macleod," said the major, subsiding into the big armchair very carefully so as not to crease his shining shirt-front, "I must give you another piece of advice. It is serious. I have heard again and again that when a man thinks only of one thing--when he keeps brooding over it day and night--he is bound to become mad. They call it monomania. You are becoming a monomaniac."

"Yes, I think I am," Macleod said, laughing; "but it is a very pleasant sort of monomania, and I am not anxious to become sane. But you really must not be hard on me, Stuart. You know that this is rather an important thing that has happened to me; and it wants a good deal of thinking over."

"Bah!" the major cried, "why take it so much _au grand serieux? A girl likes you; says she'll marry you; probably, if she continues in the same mind, she will. Consider your self a lucky dog; and don't break your heart if an accident occurs. Hope for the best--that you and she mayn't quarrel, and that she mayn't prove a sigher. Now what do you think of this house? I consider it an uncommon good dodge to put each person's name outside his bedroom door; there can't be any confounded mistakes--and women squealing--if you come up late at night. Why, Macleod, you don't mean that this affair has destroyed all your interest in the shooting? Man, I have been down to the gun-room with your friend Beauregard; have seen the head-keeper; got a gun that suits me firstrate--a trifle long in the stock, perhaps, but no matter. You won't tip any more than the head-keeper, eh? And the fellow who carries your cartridge-bag? I do think it uncommonly civil of a man not only to ask you to go shooting, but to find you in guns and cartridges; don't you?"

The major chatted on with great cheerfulness. He clearly considered that he had got into excellent quarters. At dinner he told some of his most famous Indian stories to Lady Beauregard, near whom he was sitting; and at night, in the improvised smoking-room, he was great on deer-stalking. It was not necessary for Macleod, or anybody else, to talk. The major was in full flow, though he stoutly refused to touch the spirits on the table. He wanted a clear head and a steady hand for the morning.

Alas! alas! The next morning presented a woful spectacle. Gray skies; heavy and rapidly drifting clouds; pouring rain; runnels of clear water by the side of every gravel-path; a rook or two battling with the squally south-wester high over the wide and desolate park: the wild-ducks at the margin of the ruffled lake flapping their wings as if the wet was too much even for them; nearer at hand the firs and evergreens all dripping. After breakfast the male guests wandered disconsolately into the cold billiard-room, and began knocking the balls about. All the loquacious cheerfulness of the major had fled. He looked out on the wet park and the sombre woods, and sighed.

But about twelve o'clock there was a great hurry and confusion throughout the house; for all of a sudden the skies in the west cleared; there was a glimmer of blue; and then gleams of a pale wan light began to stream over the landscape. There was a rash to the gun-room, and an eager putting on of shooting-boots and leggings; there was a rapid tying up of small packages of sandwiches; presently the wagonette was at the door. And then away they went over the hard gravel, and out into the wet roads, with the sunlight now beginning to light up the beautiful woods about Crawley. The horses seemed to know there was no time to lose. A new spirit took possession of the party. The major's face glowed as red as the hip that here and there among the almost leafless hedges shone in the sunlight on the ragged brier stem.

And yet it was about one o'clock before the work of the day began, for the beaters had to be summoned from various parts, and the small boys with the white flags--the "stops"--had to be posted so as to check runners. And then the six guns went down over a ploughed field--half clay and half chalk, and ankle deep--to the margin of a rapidly running and coffee-colored stream, which three of them had to cross by means of a very shaky plank. Lord Beauregard, Major Stuart, and Macleod remained on this side, keeping a lookout for a straggler, but chiefly concerned with the gradually opening and brightening sky. Then far away they heard a slight tapping on the trees; and almost at the same moment another sound caused the hearts of the two novices to jump. It was a quick _cuck-cuck_, accompanied by a rapid and silken winnowing of the air. Then an object, which seemed like a cannon-ball with a long tail attached, came whizzing along. Major Stuart fired--a bad miss. Then he wheeled round, took good aim, and down came a mass of feathers, whirling, until it fell motionless on the ground.

"Well hit!" Macleod cried; but at the same moment he became conscious that he had better mind his own business, for there was another whirring sound, and then he saw this rapidly enlarging object coming straight at him. He fired, and shot the bird dead; but so rapid was its flight that he had to duck his head as the slain bird drove past his face and tumbled on to the ground behind him.

"This is rather like firing at bomb-shells," he called out to Lord Beauregard.

It was certainly a new experience for Macleod to figure as a novice in any matter connected with shooting; but both the major and he speedily showed that they were not unfamiliar with the use of a gun. Whether the birds came at them like bomb-shells, or sprung like a sky-rocket through the leafless branches, they met with the same polite attention; though occasionally one would double back on the beaters and get clear away, sailing far into the silver-clear sky. Lord Beauregard scarcely shot at all, unless he was fairly challenged by a bird flying right past him: he seemed quite content to see his friends having plenty of work; while, in the interest of the beaters, he kept calling out, in a high monotone, "Shoot high! shoot high!" Then there was some motion among the brushwood; here and there a man or boy appeared; and finally the under-keeper with his retriever came across the stream to pick up the dead birds.

That bit was done with: _vorwarts!_

"Well, Stuart," Macleod said, "what do you think of it? I don't see anything murderous or unsportsmanlike in this kind of shooting. Of course shooting with dogs is much prettier; and you don't get any exercise standing in a wet field; but the man who says that shooting those birds requires no skill at all--well, I should like see him try."

"Macleod," said the major, gravely, as they plodded along, "you may think that I despise this kind of thing; but I don't: I give you my solemn word of honor that I don't. I will even go the length of saying that if Providence had blessed me with L20,000 a year, I should be quite content to own a bit of country like this. I played the part of the wild mountaineer last night, you know; that was all very well--"

Here there was a loud call from Lord Beauregard, who had overtaken them--"_Hare! hare! Mark hare?_" The major jumped round, put up his gun, and banged away--shooting far ahead in his eagerness. Macleod looked on, and did not even raise his gun.

"That comes of talking," the major said, gloomily. "And you--why didn't you shoot? I never saw you miss a hare in my life."

"I was not thinking of it," Macleod said, indifferently.

It was very soon apparent that he was thinking of something other than the shooting of pheasants or hares; for as they went from one wood to another during this beautiful brief November day he generally carried his gun over his shoulder--even when the whirring, bright-plumaged birds were starting from time to time from the hedgerows--and devoted most of his attention to warning his friend when and where to shoot. However, an incident occurred which entirely changed the aspect of affairs. At one beat he was left quite alone, posted in an open space of low brushwood close by the corner of a wood. He rested the butt of his gun on his foot; he was thinking, not of any pheasant or hare, but of the beautiful picture Gertrude White would make if she were coming down one of these open glades, between the green stems of the trees, with the sunlight around her and the fair sky overhead. Idly he watched the slowly drifting clouds; they were going away northward--by and by they would sail over London. The rifts of blue widened in the clear silver; surely the sunlight would now be shining over Regent's Park. Occasionally a pheasant came clattering along; he only regarded the shining colors of its head and neck brilliant in the sunlight. A rabbit trotted by him; he let it go. But while he was standing thus, and vaguely listening to the rattle of guns on the other side, he was suddenly startled by a quick cry of pain: and he thought he heard some one call, "Macleod! Macleod!" Instantly he put his gun against a bush, and ran. He found a hedge at the end of the wood; he drove through it, and got into the open field. There was the unlucky major, with blood running down his face, a handkerchief in his hand, and two men beside him, one of them offering him some brandy from a flask. However, after the first flight was over, it was seen that Major Stuart was but slightly hurt. The youngest member of the party had fired at a bird coming out of the wood; had missed it; had tried to wheel round to send the second barrel after it; but his feet, having sunk into the wet clay, had caught there, and, in his stumbling fall, somehow or other the second barrel went off, one pellet just catching the major under the eye. The surface wound caused a good shedding of blood, but that was all; and when the major had got his face washed he shouldered his gun again, and with indomitable pluck said he would see the thing out. It was nothing but a scratch, he declared. It might have been dangerous; but what was the good of considering what might have been? To the young man who had been the cause of the accident, and who was quite unable to express his profound sorrow and shame, he was generously considerate, saying that he had fined him in the sum of one penny when he took a postage-stamp to cover the wound.

"Lord Beauregard," said he, cheerfully, "I want you to show me a thorough-going hot corner. You know I am an ignoramus of this kind of thing."

"Well," said his host, "there is a good bit along here, if you would rather go on."

"Go on?" said he. "Of course!"

And it was a "hot corner." They came to it at the end of a long double hedgerow connected with the wood they had just beaten; and as there was no "stop" at the corner of the wood, the pheasants in large numbers had run into the channel between the double line of hedge. Here they were followed by the keepers and beaters, who kept gently driving them along. Occasionally one got up, and was instantly knocked over by one of the guns; but it was evident that the "hot corner" would be at the end of this hedgerow, where there was stationed a smock-frocked rustic who, down on his knees, was gently tapping with a bit of stick. The number of birds getting up increased, so that the six guns had pretty sharp work to reckon with them; and not a few of the wildly whirring objects got clean away into the next wood--Lord Beauregard all the time calling out from the other side of the hedge, "Shoot high! shoot high!" But at the end of the hedgerow an extraordinary scene occurred. One after the other, then in twos and threes, the birds sprang high over the bushes; the rattle of musketry--all the guns being together now--was deafening: the air was filled with gunpowder smoke; and every second or two another bird came tumbling down on to the young corn. Macleod, with a sort of derisive laugh, put his gun over his shoulder.

"This is downright stupidity," he said to Major Stuart, who was blazing away as hard as ever he could cram cartridges into the hot barrels of his gun. "You can't tell whether you are hitting the bird or not. There! Three men fired at that bird--the other two were not touched."

The fusillade lasted for about eight or ten minutes; and then it was discovered that though certainly two or three hundred pheasants had got up at this corner, only twenty-two and a half brace were killed--to five guns.

"Well," said the major, taking off his cap and wiping his forehead, "that was a bit of a scrimmage!"

"Perhaps," said Macleod, who had been watching with some amusement his friend's fierce zeal; "but it was not shooting. I defy you to say how many birds you shot. Or I will do this with you--I will bet you a sovereign that if you ask each man to tell you how many birds he has shot during the day, and add them all up, the total will be twice the number of birds the keepers will take home. But I am glad you seem to enjoy it, Stuart."

"To tell you the truth, Macleod," said the other, "I think I have had enough of it. I don't want to make a fuss; but I fancy I don't quite see clearly with this eye. It may be some slight inflammation; but I think I will go back to the house, and see if there's any surgeon in the neighborhood."

"There you are right; and I will go back with you," Macleod said, promptly.

When their host heard of this, he was for breaking up the party; but Major Stuart warmly remonstrated; and so one of the men was sent with the two friends to show them the way back to the house. When the surgeon came he examined the wound, and pronounced it to be slight enough in itself, but possibly dangerous when so near so sensitive an organ as the eye. He advised the major, if any symptoms of inflammation declared themselves, to go at once to a skillful oculist in London, and not to leave for the North until he was quite assured.

"That sounds rather well, Macleod," said he, ruefully.

"Oh, if you must remain in London--though I hope not--I will stay with you," Macleod said. It was a great sacrifice, his remaining in London, instead of going at once back to Castle Dare; but what will not one do for one's friend?

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