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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 4. Wonder-Land
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 4. Wonder-Land Post by :Joe_Coon Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2751

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 4. Wonder-Land

CHAPTER IV. WONDER-LAND

A cool evening in June, the club windows open, a clear twilight shining over Pall Mall, and a _tete-a-tete dinner at a small, clean, bright table--these are not the conditions in which a young man should show impatience. And yet the cunning dishes which Mr. Ogilvie, who had a certain pride in his club, though it was only one of the junior institutions, had placed before his friend, met with but scanty curiosity: Macleod would rather have handed questions of cookery over to his cousin Janet. Nor did he pay much heed to his companion's sage advice as to the sort of club he should have himself proposed at, with a view to getting elected in a dozen or fifteen years. A young man is apt to let his life at forty shift for itself.

"You seem very anxious to see Miss White again," said Mr. Ogilvie, with a slight smile.

"I wish to make all the friends I can while I am in London," said Macleod. "What shall I do in this howling wilderness when you go back to Aldershot?"

"I don't think Miss Gertrude White will be of much use to you. Colonel Ross may be. Or Lord Beauregard. But you cannot expect young ladies to take you about."

"No?" said Macleod, gravely; "that is a great pity."

Mr. Ogilvie, who, with all his knowledge of the world, and of wines and cookery, and women, and what not, had sometimes an uneasy consciousness that his companion was laughing at him, here proposed that they should have a cigar before walking up to the Piccadilly Theatre; but as it was now ten minutes to eight, Macleod resolutely refused. He begged to be considered a country person, anxious to see the piece from the beginning. And so they put on their light top-coats over their evening dress and walked up to the theatre.

A distant sound of music, an odor of escaped gas, a perilous descent of a corkscrew staircase, a drawing aside of heavy curtains, and then a blaze of yellow light shining within this circular building, on its red satin and gilt plaster, and on the spacious picture of a blue Italian lake, with peacocks on the wide stone terraces. The noise at first was bewildering. The leader of the orchestra was sawing away at his violin as savagely as if he were calling on his company to rush up and seize a battery of guns. What was the melody that was being banged about by the trombones, and blared aloud by the shrill cornets, and sawed across by the infuriated violins? "When the heart of a man is oppressed with care." The cure was never insisted on with such an angry vehemence.

Recovering from the first shock of this fierce noise, Macleod began to look around this strange place, with its magical colors and its profusion of gilding; but nowhere in the half-empty stalls or behind the lace curtains of the boxes could he make out the visitor of whom he was in search. Perhaps she was not coming, then? Had he sacrificed the evening all for nothing? As regarded the theatre or the piece to be played, he had not the slightest interest in either. The building was very pretty, no doubt; but it was only, in effect, a superior sort of booth; and as for the trivial amusement of watching a number of people strut across a stage and declaim--or perhaps make fools of themselves to raise a laugh--that was not at all to his liking. It would have been different had he been able to talk to the girl who had shown such a strange interest in the gloomy stories of the Northern seas; perhaps, though he would scarcely have admitted this to himself, it might have been different if only he had been allowed to see her at some distance. But her being absent altogether? The more the seats in the stalls were filled--reducing the chances of her coming--the more empty the theatre seemed to become.

"At least we can go along to that house you mentioned," said he to his companion.

"Oh, don't be disappointed yet," said Ogilvie; "I know she will be here."

"With Mrs. Ross?"

"Mrs. Ross comes very often to this theatre. It is the correct thing to do. It is high art. All the people are raving about the chief actress; artists painting her portrait; poets writing sonnets about her different characters--no end of a fuss. And Mrs. Ross is very proud that so distinguished a person is her particular friend."

"Do you mean the actress?"

"Yes; and makes her the big feature of her parties at present; and society is rather inclined to make a pet of her, too--patronizing high art, don't you know. It's wonderful what you can do in that way. If a duke wants a clown to make fellows laugh after a Derby dinner, he gets him to his house and makes him dance; and if the papers find it out, it is only raising the moral status of the pantomine. Of course it is different with Mrs. Ross's friend: she is all right socially."

The garrulous boy was stopped by the sudden cessation of the music; and then the Italian lake and the peacocks disappeared into unknown regions above; and behold! in their place a spacious hall was revealed--not the bare and simple hall at Castle Dare with which Macleod was familiar, but a grand apartment, filled with old armor, and pictures, and cabinets, and showing glimpses of a balcony and fair gardens beyond. There were two figures in this hall, and they spoke--in the high and curious falsetto of the stage. Macleod paid no more heed to them than if they had been marionettes. For one thing, he could not follow their speech very well; but, in any case, what interest could he have in listening to this old lawyer explaining to the stout lady that the family affairs were grievously involved? He was still intently watching the new-comers who straggled in, singly or in pairs, to the stalls. When a slight motion of the white curtains showed that some one was entering one of the boxes, the corner of the box was regarded with as earnest a gaze as ever followed the movements of a herd of red deer in the misty chasms of Ben-an-Sloich. What concern had he in the troubles of this over-dressed and stout lady, who was bewailing her misfortunes and wringing her bejewelled hands?

Suddenly his heart seemed to stand still altogether. It was a light, glad laugh--the sound of a voice he knew--that seemed to have pierced him as with a rifle-ball; and at the same moment from the green shimmer of foliage in the balcony there stepped into the glare of the hall a young girl with life, and laughter, and a merry carelessness in her face and eyes. She threw her arms around her mother's neck and kissed her. She bowed to the legal person. She flung her garden hat on to a couch, and got up on a chair to get fresh seed put in for her canary. It was all done so simply, and naturally, and gracefully that in an instant a fire of life and reality sprang into the whole of this sham thing. The woman was no longer a marionette, but the anguish-stricken mother of this gay and heedless girl. And when the daughter jumped down from the chair again--her canary on her finger--and when she came forward to pet, and caress, and remonstrate with her mother, and when the glare of the lights flashed on the merry eyes, and on the white teeth and laughing lips, there was no longer any doubt possible. Macleod's face was quite pale. He took the programme from Ogilvie's hand, and for a minute or two stared mechanically at the name of Miss Gertrude White, printed on the pink-tinted paper. He gave it him back without a word. Ogilvie only smiled; he was proud of the surprise he had planned.

And now the fancies and recollections that came rushing into Macleod's head were of a sufficiently chaotic and bewildering character. He tried to separate that grave, and gentle, and sensitive girl he had met at Prince's Gate from this gay madcap, and he could not at all succeed. His heart laughed with the laughter of this wild creature; he enjoyed the discomfiture and despair of the old lawyer as she stood before him twirling her garden hat by a solitary ribbon; and when the small, white fingers raised the canary to be kissed by the pouting lips, the action was more graceful than anything he had ever seen in the world. But where was the silent and serious girl who had listened with such rapt attention to his tales of passion and revenge, who seemed to have some mysterious longing for those gloomy shores he came from, who had sung with such exquisite pathos "A wee bird cam' to our ha' door?" Her cheek had turned white when she heard of the fate of the son of Maclean: surely that sensitive and vivid imagination could not belong to this audacious girl, with her laughing, and teasings, and demure coquetry?

Society had not been talking about the art of Mrs. Ross's _protegee for nothing; and that art soon made short work of Keith Macleod's doubts. The fair stranger he had met at Prince's Gate vanished into mist. Here was the real woman; and all the trumpery business of the theatre, that he would otherwise have regarded with indifference or contempt, became a real and living thing, insomuch that he followed the fortunes of this spoiled child with a breathless interest and a beating heart. The spell was on him. Oh, why should she be so proud to this poor lover, who stood so meekly before her? "Coquette, coquette" (Macleod could have cried to her), "the days are not always full of sunshine; life is not all youth, and beauty, and high spirits; you may come to repent of your pride and your cruelty." He had no jealousy against the poor youth who took his leave; he pitied him, but it was for her sake; he seemed to know that evil days were coming, when she would long for the solace of an honest man's love. And when the trouble came--as it speedily did--and when she stood bravely up at first to meet her fate, and when she broke down for a time, and buried her face in her hands, and cried with bitter sobs, the tears were running down his face. Could the merciful heavens see such grief, and let the wicked triumph? And why was there no man to succor her? Surely some times arise in which the old law is the good law, and a man will trust to his own right arm to put things straight in the world? To look at her!--could any man refuse? And now she rises and goes away, and all the glad summer-time and the sunshine have gone, and the cold wind shivers through the trees, and it breathes only of farewell. Farewell, O miserable one! the way is dark before you, and you are alone. Alone, and no man near to help.

Macleod was awakened from his trance. The act drop was let down; there was a stir throughout the theatre; young Ogilvie turned to him,--

"Don't you see who has come into that corner box up there?"

If he had told that Miss White, just come up from Prince's Gate, in her plain black dress and blue beads, had just arrived and was seated there, he would scarcely have been surprised. As it was, he looked up and saw Colonel Ross taking his seat, while the figure of a lady was partially visible behind the lace curtain.

"I wonder how often Mrs. Ross has seen this piece?" Ogilvie said. "And I think Colonel Ross is as profound a believer in Miss White as his wife is. Will you go up and see them now?"

"No," Macleod said, absently.

"I shall tell them," said the facetious boy as he rose and got hold of his crush hat, "that you are meditating a leap on to the stage to rescue the distressed damsel."

And then his conscience smote him.

"Mind you," said he, "I think it is awfully good myself. I can't pump up any enthusiasm for most things that people rave about, but I do think this girl is uncommonly clever. And then she always dresses like a lady."

With this high commendation, Lieutenant Ogilvie left, and made his way upstairs to Mrs. Ross's box. Apparently he was well received there, for he did not make his appearance again at the beginning of the next act, nor, indeed, until it was nearly over.

The dream-world opens again; and now it is a beautiful garden, close by the ruins of an old abbey, and fine ladies are walking about there. But what does he care for these marionettes uttering meaningless phrases? They have no more interest for him than the sham ruins, so long as that one bright, speaking, pathetic face is absent; and the story they are carrying forward is for him no story at all, for he takes no heed of its details in his anxious watching for her appearance. The sides of this garden are mysteriously divided: by which avenue shall she approach? Suddenly he hears the low voice--she comes nearer. Now let the world laugh again! But, alas! when she does appear, it is in the company of her lover, and it is only to bid him good-by. Why does the coward hind take her at her word? A stick, a stone, a wave of the cold sea, would be more responsive to that deep and tremulous voice, which has now no longer any of the art of a wilful coquetry about it, but is altogether as self-revealing as the generous abandonment of her eyes. The poor cipher! he is not the man to woo and win and carry off this noble woman, the unutterable soul surrender of whose look has the courage of despair in it. He bids her farewell. The tailor's dummy retires. And she? in her agony, is there no one to comfort her? They have demanded his sacrifice in the name of duty, and she has consented: ought not that to be enough to comfort her? then other people appear from other parts of the garden, and there is a Babel of tongues. He hears nothing; but he follows that sad face, until he could imagine that he listened to the throbbing of her aching heart.

And then, as the phantasms of the stage come and go, and fortune plays many pranks with these puppets, the piece draws near to an end. And now as it appears, everything is reversed, and it is the poor lover who is in grievous trouble, while she is restored to the proud position of her coquetries and wilful graces again, with all her friends smiling around her, and life lying fair before her. She meets him by accident. Suffering gives him a certain sort of dignity: but how is one to retain patience with the blindness of this insufferable ass? Don't you see, man--don't you see that she is waiting to throw herself into your arms? and you, you poor ninny, are giving yourself airs, and doing the grand heroic! And then the shy coquetry comes in again. The pathetic eyes are full of a grave compassion, if he must really never see her more. The cat plays with the poor mouse, and pretends that really the tender thing is gone away at last. He will take this half of a broken sixpence back: it was given in happier times. If ever he should marry, he will know that one far away prays for his happiness. And if--if these unwomanly tears--And suddenly the crass idiot discovers that she is laughing at him, and that she has secured him and bound him as completely as a fly fifty times wound round by a spider. The crash of applause that accompanied the lowering of the curtain stunned Macleod, who had not quite come back from dreamland. And then, amidst a confused roar the curtain was drawn a bit back, and she was led--timidly smiling, so that her eyes seemed to take in all the theatre at once--across the stage by that same poor fool of a lover; and she had two or three bouquets thrown her, notably one from Mrs. Ross's box. Then she disappeared, and the lights were lowered, and there was a dull shuffling of people getting their cloaks and hats and going away.

"Mrs. Ross wants to see you for a minute," Ogilvie said.

"Yes," Macleod answered, absently.

"And we have time yet, if you like, to get into a hansom and drive along to Lady Beauregard's."

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