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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 8. Laurel Cottage
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 8. Laurel Cottage Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :3445

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 8. Laurel Cottage

CHAPTER VIII. LAUREL COTTAGE

A small, quaint, old-fashioned house in South Bank, Regent's Park; two maidens in white in the open veranda; around them the abundant foliage of June, unruffled by any breeze; and down at the foot of the steep garden the still canal, its surface mirroring the soft translucent greens of the trees and bushes above, and the gaudier colors of a barge lying moored on the northern side. The elder of the two girls is seated in a rocking-chair; she appears to have been reading, for her right hand, hanging down, still holds a thin MS. book covered with coarse brown paper. The younger is lying at her feet, with her head thrown back in her sister's lap, and her face turned up to the clear June skies. There are some roses about this veranda, and the still air is sweet with them.

"And of all the parts you ever played in," she says, "which one did you like the best Gerty?"

"This one," is the gentle answer.

"What one?"

"Being at home with you and papa, and having no bother at all, and nothing to think of."

"I don't believe it," says the other, with the brutal frankness of thirteen. "You couldn't live without the theatre, Gerty--and the newspapers talking about you--and people praising you--and bouquets--"

"Couldn't I?" says Miss White, with a smile, as she gently lays her hand on her sister's curls.

"No," continues the wise young lady. "And besides, this pretty, quiet life would not last. You would have to give up playing that part. Papa is getting very old now; and he often talks about what may happen to us. And you know, Gerty, that though it is very nice for sisters to say they will never and never leave each other, it doesn't come off, does it? There is only one thing I see for you--and that is to get married."

"Indeed!"

It is easy to fence with a child's prattle. She might have amused herself by encouraging this chatterbox to go through the list of their acquaintances, and pick out a goodly choice of suitors. She might have encouraged her to give expression to her profound views of the chances and troubles of life, and the safeguards that timid maidens may seek. But she suddenly said, in a highly matter-of-fact manner:--

"What you say is quite true, Carry, and I've thought of it several times. It is a very bad thing for an actress to be left without a father or husband, or brother, as her ostensible guardian. People are always glad to hear stories--and to make them--about actresses. You would be no good at all, Carry--"

"Very well, then," the younger sister said, promptly, "you've got to get married. And to a rich man, too; who will buy you a theatre, and let you do what you like in it."

Miss Gertrude White, whatever she may have thought of this speech, was bound to rebuke the shockingly mercenary ring in it.

"For shame, Carry! Do you think people marry from such motives as that?"

"I don't know," said Carry; but she had, at least, guessed.

"I should like my husband to have money, certainly," Miss White said, frankly; and here she flung the MS. book from her on to a neighboring chair. "I should like to be able to refuse parts that did not suit me. I should like to be able to take just such engagements as I chose. I should like to go to Paris for a whole year, and study hard--"

"Your husband might not wish you to remain an actress," said Miss Carry.

"Then he would never be my husband," the elder sister said, with decision. "I have not worked hard for nothing. Just when I begin to think I can do something--when I think I can get beyond those coquettish, drawing-room, simpering parts that people run after now--just when the very name of Mrs. Siddons, or Rachael, or any of the great actresses makes my heart jump--when I have ambition and a fair chance, and all that--do you think I am to give the whole thing up, and sink quietly into the position of Mrs. Brown or Mrs. Smith, who is a very nice lady, no doubt, and very respectable, and lives a quiet and orderly life, with no greater excitement than scheming to get big people to go to her garden parties?"

She certainly seemed very clear on that point.

"I don't see that men are so ready to give up their professions, when they marry, in order to devote themselves to domestic life, even when they have plenty of money. Why should all the sacrifice be on the side of the woman? But I know if I have to choose between my art and a husband, I shall continue to do without a husband."

Miss Carry had risen, and put one arm round her sister's neck, while with the other she stroked the soft brown hair over the smooth forehead.

"And it shall not be taken away from its pretty theatre, it sha'n't!" said she, pettingly; "and it shall not be asked to go away with any great ugly Bluebeard, and be shut up in a lonely house--"

"Go away, Carry," said she, releasing herself. "I wonder why you began talking such nonsense. What do you know about all those things?"

"Oh! very well," said the child, turning away with a pout; and she pulled a rose and began to take its petals off, one by one, with her lips. "Perhaps I don't know. Perhaps I haven't studied your manoeuvres on the stage, Miss Gertrude White. Perhaps I never saw the newspapers declaring that it was all so very natural and life-like." She flung two or three rose petals at her sister. "I believe you're the biggest flirt that ever lived, Gerty. You could make any man you liked marry you in ten minutes."

"I wish I could manage to have certain schoolgirls whipped and sent to bed."

At this moment there appeared at the open French window an elderly woman of Flemish features and extraordinary breadth of bust.

"Shall I put dressing in the salad, miss?" she said, with scarcely any trace of foreign accent.

"Not yet, Marie," said Miss White. "I will make the dressing first. Bring me a large plate, and the cruet-stand, and a spoon and fork, and some salt."

Now when these things had been brought, and when Miss White had sat about preparing this salad dressing in a highly scientific manner, a strange thing occurred. Her sister seemed to have been attacked by a sudden fit of madness. She had caught up a light shawl, which she extended from hand to hand, as if she were dancing with some one, and then she proceeded to execute a slow waltz in this circumscribed space, humming the improvised music in a mystical and rhythmical manner. And what were these dark utterances that the inspired one gave forth, as she glanced from time to time at her sister and the plate?

"_Oh, a Highland lad my love was born--and the Lowland laws he held in scorn--_"

"Carry, don't make a fool of yourself!" said the other flushing angrily.

Carry flung her imaginary partner aside.

"There is no use making any pretence," said she, sharply. "You know quite well why you are making that salad dressing."

"Did you never see me make salad dressing before?" said the other, quite as sharply.

"You know it is simply because Sir Keith Macleod is coming to lunch. I forgot all about it. Oh, and that's why you had the clean curtains put up yesterday?"

What else had this precocious brain ferreted out?

"Yes, and that's why you bought papa a new necktie," continued the tormenter; and then she added, triumphantly, "_But he hasn't put it on this morning, ha--Gerty?_"

A calm and dignified silence is the best answer to the fiendishness of thirteen. Miss White went on with the making of the salad-dressing. She was considered very clever at it. Her father had taught her: but he never had the patience to carry out his own precepts. Besides, brute force is not wanted for the work: what you want is the self-denying assiduity and the dexterous light-handedness of a woman.

A smart young maid-servant, very trimly dressed, made her appearance.

"Sir Keith Macleod, miss," said she.

"Oh, Gerty, you're caught!" muttered the fiend.

But Miss White was equal to the occasion. The small white fingers plied the fork without a tremor.

"Ask him to step this way, please," she said.

And then the subtle imagination of this demon of thirteen jumped to another conclusion.

"Oh, Gerty, you want to show him that you are a good housekeeper--that you can make salad--"

But the imp was silenced by the appearance of Macleod himself. He looked tall as he came through the small drawing-room. When he came out onto the balcony the languid air of the place seemed to acquire a fresh and brisk vitality: he had a bright smile and a resonant voice.

"I have taken the liberty of bringing you a little present, Miss White--no, it is a large present--that reached me this morning," said he. "I want you to see one of our Highland salmon. He is a splendid fellow--twenty-six pounds four ounces, my landlady says. My cousin Janet sent him to me."

"Oh, but, Sir Keith, we cannot rob you," Miss White said, as she still demurely plied her fork. "If there is any special virtue in a Highland salmon, it will be best appreciated by yourself, rather than by those who don't know."

"The fact is," said he, "people are so kind to me that I scarcely ever am allowed to dine at my lodgings; and you know the salmon should be cooked at once."

Miss Carry had been making a face behind his back to annoy her sister. She now came forward and said, with a charming innocence in her eyes:--

"I don't think you can have it cooked for luncheon, Gerty, for that would look too much like bringing your tea in your pocket, and getting hot water for twopence. Wouldn't it?"

Macleod turned and regarded this new-comer with an unmistakable "Who is this?"--"_Co an so?_"--in his air.

"Oh, that is my sister Carry, Sir Keith," said Miss White. "I forgot you had not seen her."

"How do you do?" said he, in a kindly way; and for a second he put his hand on the light curls as her father might have done. "I suppose you like having holidays?"

From that moment she became his deadly enemy. To be patted on the head, as if she were a child, an infant--and that in the presence of the sister whom she had just been lecturing.

"Yes, thank you," said she, with a splendid dignity, as she proudly walked off. She went into the small lobby leading to the door. She called to the little maid-servant. She looked at a certain long bag made of matting which lay there, some bits of grass sticking out of one end. "Jane, take this thing down to the cellar at once! The whole house smells of it."

Meanwhile Miss White had carried her salad dressing in to Marie, and had gone out again to the veranda where Macleod was seated. He was charmed with the dreamy stillness and silence of the place, with the hanging foliage all around, and the colors in the steep gardens, and the still waters below.

"I don't see how it is," said he, "but you seem to have much more open houses here than we have. Our houses in the North look cold, and hard, and bare. We should laugh if we saw a place like this up with us; it seems to me a sort of a toy place out of a picture--from Switzerland or some such country. Here you are in the open air, with your own little world around you, and nobody to see you; you might live all your life here, and know nothing about the storm crossing the Atlantic, and the wars in Europe, if only you gave up the newspapers."

"Yes, it is very pretty and quiet," said she, and the small fingers pulled to pieces one of the rose leaves that Carry had thrown at her. "But you know one is never satisfied anywhere. If I were to tell you the longing I have to see the very places you describe as being so desolate--But perhaps papa will take me there some day."

"I hope so," said he; "but I would not call them desolate. They are terrible at times, and they are lonely, and they make you think. But they are beautiful too, with a sort of splendid beauty and grandeur that goes very near making you miserable.... I cannot describe it. You will see for yourself."

Here a bell rang, and at the same moment Mr. White made his appearance.

"How do you do, Sir Keith? Luncheon is ready, my dear--luncheon is ready--luncheon is ready."

He kept muttering to himself as he led the way. They entered a small dining-room, and here, if Macleod had ever heard of actresses having little time to give to domestic affairs, he must have been struck by the exceeding neatness and brightness of everything on the table and around it. The snow-white cover; the brilliant glass and spoons; the carefully arranged, if tiny, bouquets; and the precision with which the smart little maiden-servant, the only attendant, waited--all these things showed a household well managed. Nay, this iced claret-cup--was it not of her own composition?--and a pleasanter beverage he had never drank.

But she seemed to pay little attention to these matters, for she kept glancing at her father, who, as he addressed Macleod from time to time, was obviously nervous and harassed about something. At last she said,--

"Papa, what is the matter with you? Has anything gone wrong this morning?"

"Oh, my dear child," said he, "don't speak of it. It is my memory--I fear my memory is going. But we will not trouble our guest about it. I think you were saying, Sir Keith, that you had seen the latest additions to the National Gallery--"

"But what is it, papa?" his daughter insisted.

"My dear, my dear, I know I have the lines somewhere; and Lord ---- says that the very first jug fired at the new pottery he is helping shall have these lines on it, and be kept for himself. I know I have both the Spanish original and the English translation somewhere; and all the morning I have been hunting and hunting--for only one line. I think I know the other three,--

'Old wine to drink.
Old wrongs let sink,
* * * *
Old friends in need.'

It is the third line that has escaped me--dear, dear me! I fear my brain is going."

"But I will hunt for it, papa," said she; "I will get the lines for you. Don't you trouble."

"No, no, no, child," said he, with somewhat of a pompous air. "You have this new character to study. You must not allow any trouble to disturb the serenity of your mind while you are so engaged. You must give your heart and soul to it, Gerty; you must forget yourself; you must abandon yourself to it, and let it grow up in your mind until the conception is so perfect that there are no traces of the manner of its production left."

He certainly was addressing his daughter, but somehow the formal phrases suggested that he was speaking for the benefit of the stranger. The prim old gentleman continued; "That is the only way. Art demands absolute self-forgetfulness. You must give yourself to it in complete surrender. People may not know the difference; but the true artist seeks only to be true to himself. You produce the perfect flower; they are not to know of the anxious care--of the agony of tears, perhaps you have spent on it. But then your whole mind must be given to it; there must be no distracting cares; I will look for the missing lines myself."

"I am quite sure, papa," said Miss Carry, spitefully, "that she was far more anxious about these cutlets than about her new part this morning. She was half a dozen times to the kitchen. I didn't see her reading the book much."

"The _res angustae domi_," said the father, sententiously, "sometimes interfere, where people are not too well off. But that is necessary. What is not necessary is that Gerty should take my troubles over to herself, and disturb her formation of this new character, which ought to be growing up in her mind almost insensibly, until she herself will scarcely be aware how real it is. When she steps on to the stage she ought to be no more Gertrude White than you or I. The artist loses himself. He transfers his soul to his creation. His heart beats in another breast; he sees with other eyes. You will excuse me, Sir Keith, but I keep insisting on this point to my daughter. If she ever becomes a great artist, that will be the secret of her success. And she ought never to cease from cultivating the habit. She ought to be ready at any moment to project herself, as it were, into any character. She ought to practise so as to make of her own emotions an instrument that she can use at will. It is a great demand that art makes on the life of an artist. In fact, he ceases to live for himself. He becomes merely a medium. His most secret experiences are the property of the world at large, once they have been transfused and moulded by his personal skill."

And so he continued talking, apparently for the instruction of his daughter, but also giving his guest clearly to understand that Miss Gertrude White was not as other women but rather as one set apart for the high and inexorable sacrifice demanded by art. At the end of his lecture he abruptly asked Macleod if he had followed him. Yes, he had followed him, but in rather a bewildered way. Or had he some confused sense of self-reproach, in that he had distracted the contemplation of this pale and beautiful artist, and sent her downstairs to look after cutlets?

"It seems a little hard, sir," said Macleod to the old man, "that an artist is not to have any life of his or her own at all; that he or she should become merely a--a--a sort of ten-minutes' emotionalist."

It was not a bad phrase for a rude Highlander to have invented on the spur of the moment. But the fact was that some little personal feeling stung him into the speech. He was prepared to resent this tyranny of art. And if he now were to see some beautiful pale slave bound in these iron chains, and being exhibited for the amusement of an idle world, what would the fierce blood of the Macleods say to that debasement? He began to dislike this old man, with his cruel theories and his oracular speech. But he forbore to have further or any argument with him; for he remembered what the Highlanders call "the advice of the bell of Scoon"--"_The thing that concerns you not meddle not with._"

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