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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 29. First Impressions
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 29. First Impressions Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1205

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 29. First Impressions

CHAPTER XXIX. FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Lady Macleod remained obdurate; Janet went about the house with a sad look on her face; and Macleod, tired of the formal courtesy that governed the relations between his mother and himself, spent most of his time in snipe and duck shooting about the islands--braving the wild winds and wilder seas in a great, open lugsailed boat, the _Umpire having long been sent to her winter-quarters. But the harsh, rough life had its compensations. Letters came from the South--treasures to be pored over night after night with an increasing wonder and admiration. Miss Gertrude White was a charming letter-writer; and now there was no restraint at all over her frank confessions and playful humors. Her letters were a prolonged chat--bright, rambling, merry, thoughtful, just as the mood occurred. She told him of her small adventures and the incidents of her everyday life, so that he could delight himself with vivid pictures of herself and her surroundings. And again and again she hinted rather than said that she was continually thinking of the Highlands, and of the great change in store for her.

"Yesterday morning," she wrote, "I was going down the Edgeware Road, and whom should I see but two small boys, dressed as young Highlanders, staring into the window of a toy-shop. Stalwart young fellows they were, with ruddy complexions and brown legs, and their Glengarries coquettishly placed on the side of their head; and I could see at once that their plain kilt was no holiday dress. How could I help speaking to them? I thought perhaps they had come from Mull. And so I went up to them and asked if they would let me buy a toy for each of them. 'We dot money,' says the younger, with a bold stare at my impertinence. 'But you can't refuse to accept a present from a lady?' I said. 'Oh no, ma am,' said the elder boy, and he politely raised his cap; and the accent of his speech--well, it made my heart jump. But I was very nearly disappointed when I got them into the shop; for I asked what their name was; and they answered 'Lavender.' 'Why, surely, that is not a Highland, name,' I said. 'No, ma'am,' said the elder lad; 'but my mamma is from the Highlands, and we are from the Highlands, and we are going back to spend the New-year at home.' 'And where is your home?' I asked; but I have forgotten the name of the place; I understood it was somewhere away in the North. And then I asked them if they had ever been to Mull. 'We have passed it in the _Clansman_' said the elder boy. 'And do you know one Sir Keith Macleod there?' I asked. 'Oh no, ma'am,' said he, staring at me with his clear blue eyes as if I was a very stupid person, 'The Macleods are from Skye.' 'But surely one of them may live in Mull,' I suggested. 'The Macleods are from Skye,' he maintained, 'and my papa was at Dunvegan last year.' Then came the business of choosing the toys; and the smaller child would have a boat, though his elder brother laughed at him, and said something about a former boat of his having been blown out into Loch Rogue--which seemed to me a strange name for even a Highland loch. But the elder lad, he must needs have a sword; and when I asked him what he wanted that for, he said, quite proudly, 'To kill the Frenchmen with.' 'To kill Frenchmen with?' I said; for this young fire-eater seemed to mean what he said. 'Yes, ma'am,' said he, 'for they shoot the sheep out on the Flannan Islands when no one sees them; but we will catch them some day.' I was afraid to ask him where the Flannan Islands were, for I could see he was already regarding me as a very ignorant person; so I had their toys tied up for them, and packed them off home. 'And when you get home,' I said to them, 'you will give my compliments to your mamma, and say that you got the ship and the sword from a lady who has a great liking for the Highland people.' 'Yes, ma'am,' says he, touching his cap again with a proud politeness; and then they went their ways, and I saw them no more."

Then the Christmas-time came, with all its mystery, and friendly observances, and associations; and she described to him how Carry and she were engaged in decorating certain schools in which they were interested, and how a young curate had paid her a great deal of attention, until some one went and told him, as a cruel joke, that Miss White was a celebrated dancer at a music-hall.

Then, on Christmas morning, behold, the very first snow of the year! She got up early; she went out alone; the holiday world of London was not yet awake.

"I never in my life saw anything more beautiful," she wrote to him, "than Regent's Park this morning, in a pale fog, with just a sprinkling of snow on the green of the grass, and one great yellow mansion shining through the mist--the sunlight on it--like some magnificent distant palace. And I said to myself, if I were a poet or a painter I would take the common things, and show people the wonder and the beauty of them; for I believe the sense of wonder is a sort of light that shines in the soul of the artist; and the least bit of the 'denying spirit'--the utterance of the word _connu_--snuffs it out at once. But then, dear Keith, I caught myself asking what I had to do with all these dreams, and these theories that papa would like to have talked about. What had I to do with art? And then I grew miserable. Perhaps the loneliness of the park, with only those robust, hurrying strangers crossing, blowing their fingers, and pulling their cravats closer, had affected me; or perhaps it was that I suddenly found how helpless I am by myself. I want a sustaining hand, Keith; and that is now far away from me. I can do anything with myself of set purpose, but it doesn't last. If you remind me that one ought generously to overlook the faults of others--I generously overlook the faults of others--for five minutes. If you remind me that to harbor jealousy and envy is mean and contemptible, I make an effort, and throw out all jealous and envious thoughts--for five minutes. And so you see I got discontented with myself; and I hated two men who were calling loud jokes at each other as they parted different ways; and I marched home through the fog, feeling rather inclined to quarrel with somebody. By the way, did you ever notice that you often can detect the relationship between people by their similar mode of walking, and that more easily than by any likeness of face? As I strolled home, I could tell which of the couples of men walking before me were brothers by the similar bending of the knee and the similar gait, even when their features were quite unlike. There was one man whose fashion of walking was really very droll; his right knee gave a sort of preliminary shake as if it was uncertain which way the foot wanted to go. For the life of me I could not help imitating him; and then I wondered what his face would be like if he were suddenly to turn round and catch me."

That still dream of Regent's Park in sunlight and snow he carried about with him as a vision--a picture--even amidst the blustering westerly winds, and the riven seas that sprung over the rocks and swelled and roared away into the caves of Gribun and Bourg. There was no snow as yet up here at Dare, but wild tempests shaking the house to its foundations, and brief gleams of stormy sunlight lighting up the gray spindrift as it was whirled shoreward from the breaking seas; and then days of slow and mournful rain, with Staffa, and Lunga, and the Dutchman become mere dull patches of blurred purple--when they were visible at all--on the leaden-hued and coldly rushing Atlantic.

"I have passed through the gates of the Palace of Art," she wrote, two days later, from the calmer and sunnier South; "and I have entered its mysterious halls, and I have breathed for a time the hushed atmosphere of wonderland. Do you remember meeting a Mr. Lemuel at any time at Mrs. Ross's--a man with a strange, gray, tired face, and large, wan, blue eyes, and an air as if he were walking in a dream? Perhaps not; but, at all events, he is a great painter, who never exhibits to the vulgar crowd, but who is worshipped by a select circle of devotees; and his house is a temple dedicated to high art, and only profound believers are allowed to cross the threshold. Oh dear me! I am not a believer; but how can I help that? Mr. Lemuel is a friend of papa's, however; they have mysterious talks over milk-jugs of colored stone, and small pictures with gilt skies, and angels in red and blue. Well, yesterday he called on papa, and requested his permission to ask me to sit--or, rather, stand--for the heroine of his next great work, which is to be an allegorical one, taken from the 'Faery Queen' or the 'Morte d'Arthur,' or some such book. I protested; it was no use. 'Good gracious, papa,' I said, 'do you know what he will make of me? He will give me a dirty brown face, and I shall wear a dirty green dress; and no doubt I shall be standing beside a pool of dirty blue water, with a purple sky overhead, and a white moon in it. The chances are he will dislocate my neck, and give me gaunt cheeks like a corpse, with a serpent under my foot, or a flaming dragon stretching his jaws behind my back.' Papa was deeply shocked at my levity. Was it for me, an artist (bless the mark!), to baulk the high aims of art? Besides it was vaguely hinted that, to reward me, certain afternoon-parties were to be got up; and then, when I had got out of Merlin-land, and assured myself I was human by eating lunch, I was to meet a goodly company of distinguished folk--great poets, and one or two more mystic painters, a dilettante duke, and the nameless crowd of worshippers who would come to sit at the feet of all these, and sigh adoringly, and shake their heads over the Philistinism of English society. I don't care for ugly mediaeval maidens myself, nor for allegorical serpents, nor for bloodless men with hollow cheeks, supposed to represent soldierly valor; if I were an artist, I would rather show people the beauty of a common brick wall when the red winter sunset shines along it. But perhaps that is only my ignorance, and I may learn better before Mr. Lemuel has done with me."

When Macleod first read this passage, a dark expression came over his face. He did not like this new project.

"And so, yesterday afternoon," the letter continued, "papa and I went to Mr. Lemuel's house, which is only a short way from here; and we entered, and found ourselves in a large circular and domed hall, pretty nearly dark, and with a number of closed doors. It was all hushed, and mysterious, and dim; but there was a little more light when the man opened one of these doors and showed us into a chamber--or, rather, one of a series of chambers--that seemed to me at first like a big child's toy-house, all painted and gilded with red and gold. It was bewilderingly full of objects that had no ostensible purpose. You could not tell whether any one of these rooms was dining-room, or drawing-room, or anything else; it was all a museum of wonderful cabinets filled with different sorts of ware, and trays of uncut precious stones, and Eastern jewelry, and what not; and then you discovered that in the panels of the cabinets were painted series of allegorical heads on a gold background; and then perhaps you stumbled on a painted glass window where no window should be. It was a splendid blaze of color, no doubt. One began to dream of Byzantine emperors, and Moorish conquerors, and Constantinople gilt domes. But then--mark the dramatic effect!--away in the blaze of the farther chamber appears a solemn, slim, bowed figure, dressed all in black--the black velvet coat seemed even blacker than black--and the mournful-eyed man approached, and he gazed upon us a grave welcome from the pleading, affected, tired eyes. He had a slight cough, too, which I rather fancied was assumed for the occasion. Then we all sat down, and he talked to us in a low, sad, monotonous voice; and there was a smell of frankincense about--no doubt a band of worshippers had lately been visiting at the shrine; and, at papa's request, he showed me some of his trays of jewels with a wearied air. And some drawings of Botticelli that papa had been speaking about; would he look at them now? Oh, dear Keith, the wickedness of the human imagination! as he went about in this limp and languid fashion, in the hushed room, with the old-fashioned scent in the air, I wished I was a street boy. I wished I could get close behind him, and give a sudden yell! Would he fly into bits? Would he be so startled into naturalness as to swear? And all the time that papa and he talked, I dared scarcely lift my eyes; for I could not but think of the effect of that wild 'Hi!' And what if I had burst into a fit of laughter without any apparent cause?"

Apparently Miss White had not been much impressed by her visit to Mr. Lemuel's palace of art, and she made thereafter but slight mention of it, though she had been prevailed upon to let the artist borrow the expression of her face for his forthcoming picture. She had other things to think about now, when she wrote to Castle Dare.

For one day Lady Macleod went into her son's room and said to him, "Here is a letter, Keith, which I have written to Miss White. I wish you to read it."

He jumped to his feet, and hastily ran his eyes over the letter. It was a trifle formal, it is true; but it was kind, and it expressed the hope that Miss White and her father would next summer visit Castle Dare. The young man threw his arms round his mother's neck and kissed her. "That is like a good mother," said he. "Do you know how happy she will be when she receives this message from you?"

Lady Macleod left him the letter to address. He read it over carefully; and though he saw that the handwriting was the handwriting of his mother, he knew that the spirit that had prompted these words was that of the gentle cousin Janet.

This concession had almost been forced from the old lady by the patience and mild persistence of Janet Macleod; but if anything could have assured her that she had acted properly in yielding, it was the answer which Miss Gertrude White sent in return. Miss White wrote that letter several times over before sending it off, and it was a clever piece of composition. The timid expressions of gratitude; the hints of the writer's sympathy with the romance of the Highlands and the Highland character; the deference shown by youth to age; and here and there just the smallest glimpse of humor, to show that Miss White, though very humble and respectful and all that, was not a mere fool. Lady Macleod was pleased by this letter. She showed it to her son one night at dinner. "It is a pretty hand," she remarked, critically.

Keith Macleod read it with a proud heart. "Can you not gather what kind of woman she is from that letter alone?" he said, eagerly. "I can almost hear her talk in it. Janet, will you read it too?"

Janet Macleod took the small sheet of perfumed paper and read it calmly, and handed it back to her aunt. "It is a nice letter," said she. "We must try to make Dare as bright as maybe when she comes to see us, that she will not go back to England with a bad account of the Highland people." That was all that was said at the time about the promised visit of Miss Gertrude White to Castle Dare. It was only as a visitor that Lady Macleod had consented to receive her. There was no word mentioned on either side of anything further than that. Mr. White and his daughter were to be in the Highlands next summer; they would be in the neighborhood of Castle Dare; Lady Macleod would be glad to entertain them for a time, and make the acquaintance of two of her son's friends. At all events, the proud old lady would be able to see what sort of woman this was whom Keith Macleod had chosen to be his wife.

And so the winter days and nights and weeks dragged slowly by; but always, from time to time, came those merry and tender and playful letters from the South, which he listened to rather than read. It was her very voice that was speaking to him, and in imagination he went about with her. He strolled with her over the crisp grass, whitened with hoar-frost, of the Regent's Park; he hurried home with her in the chill gray afternoons--the yellow gas-lamps being lit--to the little tea-table. When she visited a picture gallery, she sent him a full report of that, even.

"Why is it," she asked, "that one is so delighted to look a long distance, even when the view is quite uninteresting? I wonder if that is why I greatly prefer landscapes to figure subjects. The latter always seem to me to be painted from models just come from the Hampstead Road. There was scarcely a sea-piece in the exhibition that was not spoiled by figures, put in for the sake of picturesqueness, I suppose. Why, when you are by the sea you want to be alone, surely! Ah, if I could only have a look at those winter seas you speak of!"

He did not echo that wish at all. Even as he read he could hear the thunderous booming of the breakers into the giant caves. Was it for a pale rose-leaf to brave that fell wind that tore the waves into spindrift, and howled through the lonely chasms of Ben-an-Sloich?

To one of these precious documents, written in the small, neat hand on pink-toned and perfumed paper, a postscript was added: "If you keep my letters," she wrote, and he laughed when he saw that _if_, "I wish you would go back to the one in which I told you of papa and me calling at Mr. Lemuel's house, and I wish, dear Keith, you would burn it. I am sure it was very cruel and unjust. One often makes the mistake of thinking people affected when there is no affectation about them. And if a man has injured his health and made an invalid of himself, through his intense and constant devotion to his work, surely that is not anything to be laughed at? Whatever Mr. Lemuel may be, he is, at all events, desperately in earnest. The passion that he has for his art, and his patience and concentration and self-sacrifice, seems to me to be nothing less than noble. And so, dear Keith, will you please to burn that impertinent letter?"

Macleod sought out the letter and carefully read it over. He came to the conclusion that he could see no just reason for complying with her demand. Frequently first impressions are best.

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