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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 6. A Summer Day On The Thames
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 6. A Summer Day On The Thames Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2261

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 6. A Summer Day On The Thames

CHAPTER VI. A SUMMER DAY ON THE THAMES

It occurred to him as he walked down to the station--perhaps he went early on the chance of finding her there alone--that he ought seriously to study the features of this girl's face; for was there not a great deal of character to be learned, or guessed at, that way? He had but the vaguest notion of what she was really like. He knew that her teeth were pearly white when she smiled, and that the rippling golden-brown hair lay rather low on a calm and thoughtful forehead; but he had a less distinct impression that her nose was perhaps the least thing _retrousse_; and as to her eyes? They might be blue, gray, or green, but one thing he was sure of was that they could speak more than was ever uttered by any speech. He knew, besides, that she had an exquisite figure: perhaps it was the fact that her shoulders were a trifle squarer than is common with women that made her look somewhat taller than she really was.

He would confirm or correct these vague impressions. And as the chances were that they would spend a whole long day together, he would have abundant opportunity of getting to know something about the character and disposition of this new acquaintance, so that she should no longer be to him a puzzling and distracting will-o'-the-wisp. What had he come to London for but to improve his knowledge of men and of women, and to see what was going on in the larger world? And so this earnest student walked down to the station.

There were a good many people about, mostly in groups chatting with each other; but he recognized no one. Perhaps he was looking out for Colonel and Mrs. Ross; perhaps for a slender figure in black, with blue beads; at all events, he was gazing somewhat vacantly around when some one turned close by him. Then his heart stood still for a second. The sudden light that sprang to her face when she recognized him blinded him. Was it to be always so? Was she always to come upon him in a flash, as it were? What chance had the poor student of fulfilling his patient task when, on his approach, he was sure to be met by this surprise of the parted lips, and sudden smile, and bright look? He was far too bewildered to examine the outline of her nose or the curve of the exquisitely short upper lip.

But the plain truth was that there was no extravagant joy at all in Miss White's face, but a very slight and perhaps pleased surprise; and she was not in the least embarrassed.

"Are you looking for Mrs. Ross," said she, "like myself?"

"Yes," said he; and then he found himself exceedingly anxious to say a great deal to her, without knowing where to begin. She had surprised him too much--as usual. She was so different from what he had been dreaming about. Here was no one of the imaginary creatures that had risen before his mind during the stillness of the night. Even the pale dreamer in black and blue beads was gone. He found before him (as far as he could make out) a quiet, bright-faced, self-possessed girl, clad in a light and cool costume of white, with bits of black velvet about it; and her white gloves and sunshade, and the white silver chain round her slender waist, were important features in the picture she presented. How could this eager student of character get rid of the distressing trivialities? All night long he had been dreaming of beautiful sentiments and conflicting emotions: now his first thought was that he had never seen any costume so delightfully cool, and clear, and summer-like. To look at her was to think of a mountain spring, icy cold even in the sunshine.

"I always come early," said she, in the most matter-of-fact way. "I cannot bear hurry in catching a train."

Of course not. How could any one associate rattling cabs, and excited porters, and frantic mobs with this serene creature, who seemed to have been wafted to Charing Cross on a cloud? And if he had had his will, there would have been no special train to disturb her repose. She would have embarked in a noble barge, and lain upon couches of swans-down, and ample awnings of silk would have sheltered her from the sun, while the beautiful craft floated away down the river, its crimson hangings here and there just touching the rippling waters.

"Ought we to take tickets?"

That was what she actually said; but what those eloquent, innocent eyes seemed to say was, "_Can you read what we have to tell you? Don't you know what a simple and confiding soul appeals to you?--clear as the daylight in its truth. Cannot you look through us and see the trusting, tender soul within?_"

"Perhaps we had better wait for Colonel Ross," said he; and there was a little pronoun in this sentence that he would like to have repeated. It was a friendly word. It established a sort of secret companionship. It is the proud privilege of a man to know all about railway tickets; but he rather preferred this association with her helpless innocence and ignorance.

"I had no idea you were coming to-day. I rather like those surprise parties. Mrs. Ross never thought of going until last evening, she says. Oh, by the way, I saw you in the theatre last evening."

He almost started. He had quite forgotten that this self-possessed, clear-eyed, pale girl was the madcap coquette whose caprices and griefs had alternately fascinated and moved him on the previous evening.

"Oh indeed," he stammered. "It was a great pleasure to me--and a surprise. Lieutenant Ogilvie played a trick on me. He did not tell me before we went that--that you were to appear."

She looked amused.

"You did not know, then, when we met at Mrs. Ross's that I was engaged at the Piccadilly Theatre?"

"Not in the least," he said, earnestly, as if he wished her distinctly to understand that he could not have imagined such a thing to be possible.

"You should have let me send you a box. We have another piece in rehearsal. Perhaps you will come to see that."

Now if these few sentences, uttered by those two young people in the noisy railway station, be taken by themselves and regarded, they will be found to consist of the dullest commonplace. No two strangers in all that crowd could have addressed each other in a more indifferent fashion. But the trivial nothings which the mouth utters may become possessed of awful import when accompanied by the language of the eyes; and the poor commonplace sentences may be taken up and translated so that they shall stand written across the memory in letters of flashing sunlight and the colors of June. "_Ought we to take tickets?_" There was not much poetry in the phrase but she lifted her eyes just then.

And now Colonel Ross and his wife appeared, accompanied by the only other friend they could get at such short notice to join this scratch party--a demure little old lady who had a very large house on Campden Hill which everybody coveted. They were just in time to get comfortably seated in the spacious saloon carriage that had been reserved for them. The train slowly glided out of the station, and then began to rattle away from the midst of London. Glimpses of a keener blue began to appear. The gardens were green with the foliage of the early summer; martins swept across the still pools, a spot of white when they got into the shadow. And Miss White would have as many windows open as possible, so that the sweet June air swept right through the long carriage.

And was she not a very child in her enjoyment of this sudden escape into the country? The rapid motion, the silvery light, the sweet air, the glimpses of orchards, and farm-houses, and millstreams--all were a delight to her; and although she talked in a delicate, half-reserved, shy way with that low voice of hers, still there was plenty of vivacity and gladness in her eyes. They drove from Gravesend station to the river-side. They passed through the crowd waiting to see the yachts start. They got on board the steamer; and at the very instant that Macleod stepped from the gangway on to the deck, the military band on board, by some strange coincidence, struck up "A Highland lad my love was born." Mrs. Ross laughed, and wondered whether the band-master had recognized her husband.

And now they turned to the river; and there were the narrow and shapely cutters, with their tall spars, and their pennons fluttering in the sunlight. They lay in two tiers across the river, four in each tier, the first row consisting of small forty-tonners, the more stately craft behind. A brisk northeasterly wind was blowing, causing the bosom of the river to flash in ripples of light. Boats of every size and shape moved up and down and across the stream. The sudden firing of a gun caused some movement among the red-capped mariners of the four yachts in front.

"They are standing by the main halyards," said Colonel Ross to his women-folk. "Now watch for the next signal."

Another gun was fired; and all of a sudden there was a rattling of blocks and chains, and the four mainsails slowly rose, and the flapping jibs were run out. The bows drifted round: which would get way on her first? But now there was a wild uproar of voices. The boom end of one of the yachts had caught one of the stays of her companion, and both were brought up head to wind. Cutter No. 3 took advantage of the mishap to sail through the lee of both her enemies, and got clear away, with the sunlight shining full on her bellying canvas. But there was no time to watch the further adventures of the forty-tonners. Here and closer at hand were the larger craft, and high up in the rigging were the mites of men, ready to drop into the air, clinging on to the halyards. The gun is fired. Down they come, swinging in the air; and the moment they have reached the deck they are off and up the ratlines again, again to drop into the air until the gaff is high hoisted, the peak swinging this way and that, and the gray folds of the mainsail lazily flapping in the wind. The steamer begins to roar. The yachts fall away from their moorings, and one by one the sails fill out to the fresh breeze. And now all is silence and an easy gliding motion, for the eight competitors have all started away, and the steamer is smoothly following them.

"How beautiful they are!--like splendid swans," Miss White said: she had a glass in her hand, but did not use it, for as yet the stately fleet was near enough.

"A swan has a body," said Macleod. "These things seem to me to be all wings. It is all canvas, and no hull."

And, indeed, when the large top-sails and big jibs came to be set, it certainly seemed as if there was nothing below to steady this vast extent of canvas. Macleod was astonished. He could not believe that people were so reckless as to go out in boats like that.

"If they were up in our part of the world," said he, "a puff of wind from the Gribun Cliffs would send the whole fleet to the bottom."

"They know better than to try," Colonel Ross said, "Those yachts are admirably suited for the Thames; and Thames yachting is a very nice thing. It is very close to London. You can take a day's fresh air when you like, without going all the way to Cowes. You can get back to town in time to dine."

"I hope so," said Miss White, with emphasis.

"Oh, you need not be afraid," her host said, laughing. "They only go round the Nore; and with this steady breeze they ought to be back early in the afternoon. My dear Miss White, we sha'n't allow you to disappoint the British public."

"So I may abandon myself to complete idleness without concern?"

"Most certainly."

And it was an enjoyable sort of idleness. The river was full of life and animation as they glided along; fitful shadows and bursts of sunshine crossed the foliage and pasture-lands of the flat shores; the yellow surface of the stream was broken with gleams of silver; and always, when this somewhat tame, and peaceful, and pretty landscape tended to become monotonous, they had on this side or that the spectacle of one of those tall and beautiful yachts rounding on a new tack or creeping steadily up on one of her opponents. They had a sweepstakes, of course, and Macleod drew the favorite. But then he proceeded to explain to Miss White that the handicapping by means of time allowances made the choice of a favorite a mere matter of guesswork; that the fouling at the start was of but little moment: and that on the whole she ought to exchange yachts with him.

"But if the chances are all equal, why should your yacht be better than mine?" said she.

The argument was unanswerable; but she took the favorite for all that, because he wished her to do so; and she tendered him in return the bit of folded paper with the name of a rival yacht on it. It had been in her purse for a minute or two. It was scented when she handed it to him.

"I should like to go to the Mediterranean in one of those beautiful yachts," she said, looking away across the troubled waters, "and lie and dream under the blue skies. I should want no other occupation than that: that would be real idleness, with a breath of wind now and then to temper the heat; and an awning over the deck; and a lot of books. Life would go by like a dream."

Her eyes were distant and pensive. To fold the bits of paper, she had taken off her gloves: he regarded the small white hands, with the blue veins and the pink, almond-shaped nails. She was right. That was the proper sort of existence for one so fine and pale, and perfect even to the finger-tips. Rose Leaf--Rose Leaf--what faint wind will carry you away to the south?

At this moment the band struck up a lively air. What was it?

"O this is no my ain lassie,
Fair though the lassie be."

"You are in great favor, to-day, Hugh," Mrs. Ross said to her husband. "You will have to ask the band-master to lunch with us."

But this sharp alternative of a well-known air had sent Macleod's thoughts flying away northward, to scenes far different from these flat shores, and to a sort of boating very different from this summer sailing. Janet, too: what was she thinking of--far away in Castle Dare? Of the wild morning on which she insisted on crossing to one of the Freshnist islands, because of the sick child of a shepherd there; and of the open herring smack, and she sitting on the ballast stones; and of the fierce gale of wind and rain that hid the island from their sight; and of her landing, drenched to the skin, and with the salt-water running from her hair and down her face?

"Now for lunch," said Colonel Ross; and they went below.

The bright little saloon was decorated with flowers; the colored glass on the table looked pretty enough; here was a pleasant break in the monotony of the day. It was an occasion, too, for assiduous helpfulness, and gentle inquiries, and patient attention. They forgot about the various chances of the yachts. They could not at once have remembered the name of the favorite. And there was a good deal of laughter and pleasant chatting, while the band overhead--heard through the open skylight--still played,

"O this is no my ain lassie,
Kind though the lassie be."

And behold! when they went up on deck again they had got ahead of all the yachts, and were past the forts at the mouth of the Medway, and were out on an open space of yellowish-green water that showed where the tide of the sea met the current of the river. And away down there in the south, a long spur of land ran out at the horizon, and the sea immediately under was still and glassy, so that the neck of land seemed projected into the sky--a sort of gigantic razor-fish suspended in the silvery clouds. Then, to give the yachts time to overtake them, they steamed over to a mighty ironclad that lay at anchor there; and as they came near her vast black bulk they lowered their flag, and the band played "Rule, Britannia." The salute was returned; the officer on the high quarterdeck raised his cap; they steamed on.

In due course of time they reached the Nore lightship, and there they lay and drifted about until the yachts should come up. Long distances now separated that summer fleet; but as they came along, lying well over before the brisk breeze, it was obvious that the spaces of time between the combatants Would not be great. And is not this Miss White's vessel, the favorite in the betting, that comes sheering through the water, with white foam at her bows? Surely she is more than her time allowance ahead? And on this tack will she get clear round the ruddy little lightship, or is there not a danger of her carrying off a bowsprit? With what an ease and majesty she comes along, scarcely dipping to the slight summer waves, while they on board notice that she has put out her long spinnaker boom, ready to hoist a great ballooner as soon as she is round the lightship and running home before the wind. The speed at which she cuts the water is now visible enough as she obscures for a second or so the hull of the lightship. In another second she has sheered round; and then the great spinnaker bulges out with the breeze, and away she goes up the river again. Chronometers are in request. It is only a matter of fifty seconds that the nearest rival, now coming sweeping along, has to make up. But what is this that happens just as the enemy has got round the Nore? There is a cry of "Man overboard!" The spinnaker boom has caught the careless skipper and pitched him clean into the plashing waters, where he floats about, not as yet certain, probably, what course his vessel will take. She at once brings her head up to wind and puts about; but meanwhile a small boat from the lightship has picked up the unhappy skipper, and is now pulling hard to strike the course of the yacht on her new tack. In another minute or two he is on board again; and away she goes for home.

"I think you have won the sweepstakes, Miss White," Macleod said. "Your enemy has lost eight minutes."

She was not thinking of sweepstakes. She seemed to have been greatly frightened by the accident.

"It would have been so dreadful to see a man drowned before your eyes--in the midst of a mere holiday excursion."

"Drowned?" he cried. "There? If a sailor lets himself get drowned in this water, with all these boats about, he deserves it."

"But there are many sailors who cannot swim at all."

"More shame for them," said he.

"Why, Sir Keith," said Mrs. Ross, laughing, "do you think that all people have been brought up to an amphibious life like yourself? I suppose in your country, what with the rain and the mist, you seldom know whether you are on sea or shore."

"That is quite true," said he, gravely. "And the children are all born with fins. And we can hear the mermaids singing all day long. And when we want to go anywhere, we get on the back of a dolphin."

But he looked at Gertrude White. What would she say about that far land that she had shown such a deep interest in? There was no raillery at all in her low voice as she spoke.

"I can very well understand," she said, "how the people there fancied they heard the mermaids singing--amidst so much mystery, and with the awfulness of the sea around them."

"But we have had living singers," said Macleod, "and that among the Macleods, too. The most famous of all the song-writers of the Western Highlands was Mary Macleod, that was born in Harris--Mairi Nighean Alasdair ruaidh, they called her, that is, Mary, the daughter of Red Alister. Macleod of Dunvegan, he wished her not to make any more songs; but she could not cease the making of songs. And there was another Macleod--Fionaghal, they called her, that is the Fair Stranger. I do not know why they called her the Fair Stranger--perhaps she came to the Highlands from some distant place. And I think if you were going among the people there at this very day, they would call you the Fair Stranger."

He spoke quite naturally and thoughtlessly: his eyes met hers only for a second; he did not notice the soft touch of pink that suffused the delicately tinted cheek.

"What did you say was the name of that mysterious stranger?" asked Mrs. Ross--"that poetess from unknown lands?"

"Fionaghal," he answered.

She turned to her husband.

"Hugh," she said, "let me introduce you to our mysterious guest. This is Fionaghal--this is the Fair Stranger from the islands--this is the poetess whose melodies the mermaids have picked up. If she only had a harp, now--with sea-weed hanging from it--and an oval mirror--"

The booming of a gun told them that the last yacht had rounded the lightship. The band struck up a lively air, and presently the steamer was steaming off in the wake of the procession of yachts. There was now no more fear that Miss White should be late. The breeze had kept up well, and had now shifted a point to the east, so that the yachts, with their great ballooners, were running pretty well before the wind. The lazy abandonment of the day became more complete than ever. Careless talk and laughter; an easy curiosity about the fortunes of the race; tea in the saloon, with the making up of two bouquets of white roses, sweet-peas, fuchias, and ferns--the day passed lightly and swiftly enough. It was a summer day, full of pretty trifles. Macleod, surrendering to the fascination, began to wonder what life would be if it were all a show of June colors and a sound of dreamy music: for one thing, he could not imagine this sensitive, beautiful, pale, fine creature otherwise than as surrounded by an atmosphere of delicate attentions and pretty speeches, and sweet, low laughter.

They got into their special train again at Gravesend, and were whirled up to London. At Charing Cross he bade good-bye to Miss White, who was driven off by Mr. and Mrs. Ross along with their other guest. In the light of the clear June evening he walked rather absently up to his rooms.

There was a letter lying on the table. He seized it and opened it with gladness. It was from his cousin Janet, and the mere sight of it seemed to revive him like a gust of keen wind from the sea. What had she to say? About the grumbling of Donald, who seemed to have no more pride in his pipes, now the master was gone? About the anxiety of his mother over the reports of the keepers? About the upsetting of a dog-cart on the road to Lochbuy? He had half resolved to go to the theatre again that evening--getting, if possible, into some corner where he might pursue his profound pyschological investigations unseen--but now he thought he would not go. He would spend the evening in writing a long letter to his cousin, telling her and the mother about all the beautiful, fine, gay, summer life he had seen in London--so different from anything they could have seen in Fort William, or Inverness, or even in Edinburgh. After dinner he sat down to this agreeable task. What had he to write about except brilliant rooms, and beautiful flowers, and costumes such as would have made Janet's eyes wide--of all the delicate luxuries of life, and happy idleness, and the careless enjoyment of people whose only thought was about a new pleasure? He gave a minute description of all the places he had been to see--except the theatre. He mentioned the names of the people who had been kind to him; but he said nothing about Gertrude White.

Not that she was altogether absent from his thoughts. Sometimes his fancy fled away from the sheet of paper before him, and saw strange things. Was this Fionaghal the Fair Stranger--this maiden who had come over the seas to the dark shores of the isles--this king's daughter clad in white, with her yellow hair down to her waist and bands of gold on her wrists? And what does she sing to the lashing waves but songs of high courage, and triumph, and welcome to her brave lover coming home with plunder through the battling seas? Her lips are parted with her singing, but her glance is bold and keen: she has the spirit of a king's daughter, let her come from whence she may.

Or is Fionaghal the Fair Stranger this poorly dressed lass who boils the potatoes over the rude peat fire, and croons her songs of suffering and of the cruel drowning in the seas, so that from hut to hut they carry her songs, and the old wives' tears start afresh to think of their brave sons lost years and years ago?

Neither Fionaghal is she--this beautiful, pale woman, with her sweet, modern English speech, and her delicate, sensitive ways, and her hand that might be crushed like a rose leaf. There is a shimmer of summer around her; flowers lie in her lap; tender observances encompass and shelter her. Not for her the biting winds of the northern seas; but rather the soft luxurious idleness of placid waters, and blue skies, and shadowy shores ... _Rose Leaf! Rose Leaf! what faint wind will carry you away to the south?

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