By C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON
Authors of "The Guests of Hercules," "The Princess Virginia." "The Motor Maid." etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York Copyright, 1912, by C. N. & A. M. Williamson
All rights reserved, including that of translation into Foreign Languages, including the Scandinavian.
THE PRELUDE: AND THE PEOPLE
For the first time in her life, Barrie saw the door that led to the garret stairs standing ajar. It was always, always locked, as is correct, though irritating, for a door that leads to Fairyland.
In Barrie's Outer Life that her grandmother knew, and Miss Hepburn knew, and Mrs. Muir the housekeeper knew, there was—Heaven be praised!—no romance at all; for romance is an evil thing, still worse, a frivolous thing, which may be avoided for a well-brought-up girl though whopping-cough may not; and already this same evil had wrought vast damage among the MacDonalds of Dhrum. In the Inner Life of Barrie, however, there was nothing worth thinking about except romance; and the door of the garret stairs was one of the principal roads to the forbidden land.
She stopped in front of it. At first she could not believe her eyes. Her heart had given a glorious bound, which, only to have felt once in its full ecstasy, was worth the bother of being born into a family where there were no mothers or fathers, but only—ah, what an awesome only!—grim old Grandma MacDonald and Grandma MacDonald's grim old house where Carlisle ends and moorlands begin.
It is difficult to be sure of things when your heart is beating nineteen to the dozen, and the special thing, or mirage of a thing, seems—judging from all else that has happened in Outer Life—much too good to be true. Yet there it was, that streak of dull, mote-misted gold, painting what actually appeared to be a crack between the dark frame of the door and the dark old door itself—just such gold as Barrie had seen at least once a day ever since she could remember (except when mumps and measles kept her in bed) by applying an eye to the keyhole. "Fairy gold" she had named it.
The only person who ever went into the garret was Mrs. Muir, and though she had the air of making no secret of such expeditions, it had always struck Barrie as deliciously, thrillingly strange that invariably she turned the key of the stairway door upon herself the instant she was on the other side, and religiously performed the same ceremony on letting herself out. "Ceremony" really was the word, because the key was large, ancient, and important-looking, and squeaked sepulchrally while it turned. Barrie knew all this, because in spring and autumn, when Mrs. Muir paid her visits to fairylands forlorn beyond the oak door, Barrie lurked under cover of the convenient, thick, and well-placed shadow behind the grandfather clock on the landing.
It was not autumn now, which was part of the mystery, after these endless years of routine (they seemed endless to Barrie at eighteen), and she would certainly have missed the event had this not been her keyhole hour.
Somehow she had become aware—through heredity and race memory, no doubt—that looking through keyholes was caddish, a trick unworthy of any lady who was at heart a gentleman. But there are exceptions to all keyholes, and this was one, because, as none save ghosts and fairies lived or moved behind it in the garret, there was nobody to spy upon. You looked through to stimulate the romance in your starved soul and save it from death by inanition, because if romance died, then indeed the Outer Life at Hillard House would be no longer bearable.
Barrie paid her respects to the keyhole o' mornings, for two reasons. The first and commonplace reason was because Mrs. Muir was busy downstairs and had no eye to spare to see whether other eyes were glued to the wrong places. The second and more charming reason was because in the morning the golden haze floated behind the keyhole like shimmering water with the sun shining deep into it. By afternoon there was nothing left to peer into but cold gray shadow, which meant that the fairies and other inhabitants were not at home.
Mrs. Muir's motive for visiting the garret out of season was a simple one, but it was well that Barrie did not know this, for it was not at all interesting, and would have broken the music, thrown cold water on the thrill. Moths, no respecters of persons or judges of high religious reputations, had dared to nest in Mrs. MacDonald's best black cashmere dress, which had not been worn and would not be worn, except on great occasions, until next season, and had mechanically reduced it to the rate of second best. Moth-powder and moth-balls were exhausted in downstairs regions, but there was a store of both in the garret; and in her annoyance at having to ascend at an unprecedented time, and her vexation at an accident such as must happen in the best regulated families, Mrs. Muir had hurriedly returned with the wanted box, forgetting to lock the door.
Barrie could not be sure that the housekeeper was not even now in the garret; but she had to find out: and the awful thrill of uncertainty made her next step a high adventure, the adventure of her life. It was a step onto the garret stairs, and though it meant dangers of all sorts, she risked them every one, and closed the door behind her. You see, if she had not done this, any person passing along the landing—a person such as Grandma, or Janet Hepburn—would at once have seen the streak of gold, a mere yellow crack to them, and then and there would have arisen a clamour for the key.
Even with the door closed the risk remained in a lesser degree. Mrs. Muir, if she were not at this moment in the garret, might suddenly remember that she had left the door ajar, taking away the key; then she would rush back like a stout round whirlwind, and in a minute more Barrie would be a prisoner, almost like the fair bride in "The Mistletoe Bough," only there was more air in the garret than in the oak chest that shut with a spring. But Barrie was used to taking risks—risks insignificant compared with this, yet big enough to supply salt and sugar for the dry daily bread of existence.
The door shut softly, but—mercy, what creaks those steps had in them! They seemed to be vying with each other, the heartless brutes, as to which could shriek the loudest under a girl's light foot. Probably they had never seen a girl before, or if they had, it was so long ago they had forgotten. Fancy Grandma a girl! No wonder, if the steps remembered her, that they yelled——But by this time Barrie's head had arrived at the top of the steep stairs, and her eyes were peering cautiously through clouds of gold dust along the level of a floor, mountainous in its far horizon with piled chests, trunks, and furniture.
The gold poured through three very high, small dormer-windows which until now Barrie had known only from outside, staring up at the ivied house wall from the east garden. The dust lived in the garret air, and was different from, more wonderful and mysterious than, any other dust, except perhaps the dust far off in the distance at sunset, where motor-cars you could not see passed along a road invisible.
Barrie couldn't be quite certain at first whether the garret was empty of human life, or whether Mrs. Muir was likely to pounce upon her with reproaches from behind one of those immense oak posts which went up like trees to meet the high beamed roof. Or she might be concealed by an oasis of furniture. There were several such oases in the large wilderness of garret, which covered the whole upper story of the old house. But a lovely garret it was, a heavenly garret! even better than Barrie had dreamed it might be, with her eye at the keyhole of the stairway door. It was peopled with possibilities—glorious, echoing, beckoning possibilities—which made her heart beat as she could not remember its beating before.
She climbed the remaining steps regardless of squeaks, because she could not any longer bear the suspense concerning Mrs. Muir. Nothing moved in answer to the old wood's complainings, and there was no other sound, or rather there were no real sounds such as are made by people; but when Barrie reached the head of the stairs the whole garret was full, to her ears, of delicate rustlings and whisperings, sighs and footfalls and breathings, and scurryings out of sight.
No, Mrs. Muir was not here, or by this time she would be out in the open and scolding hard.
Barrie drew in deep breaths of the strange, still atmosphere which was like air that had been put to sleep years and years ago. It must have smelt exactly like this, she thought quietly, in the lost palace of La Belle Dormante when the Prince found his way in through barricading thickets. Barrie would hardly have been surprised if she had stumbled upon a Sleeping Beauty. If she had, she would have said to herself, "So that's the secret Mrs. Muir's been hiding, by keeping the door locked up. I told you so!"
The scent of the garret fascinated Barrie, and made her heart beat heavily, as if she were on the threshold of a mystery. It was made up of many odours: a faint, not unpleasant mustiness, the smell of dust, a perfume of old potpourri, and spices, cloves, and camphor for moths, a vague fragrance of rosewood and worm-eaten oak, a hint of beeswax, a tang of unaired leather and old books.
Barrie suddenly felt perfectly happy. For to-day this wonderful place with all its secrets was hers. She hardly knew what to explore first. All the really interesting things in the house seemed to have risen to the top, like cream on milk. Along a part of one wall opposite the stairs and under the east windows whence came the morning gold were ranged rough old bookcases, a kind of alms-house for indigent books, or a prison for condemned volumes. But what books! Barrie was drawn to them as by many magnets, and almost tremulously taking down one after another, she understood the reason of their banishment. Here were all the darling books which used to live down in the library, and had been exiled because she dipped into them, they being (according to Grandma and Miss Hepburn) "most unsuitable for nice-minded girls." Barrie had mourned her friends as dead, but they had been only sleeping. And there were others, apparently far more unsuitable for nice-minded girls—old leather-bound books with quaint wood engravings and thick yellow pages printed with old-fashioned "s's" like "f's." Barrie could have browsed among this company for hours, but there were so many things to see in the garret, so little time for seeing them, that she felt compelled merely to say "How do you do, and good-bye," to each allurement.
Her eyes, roaming like a pair of crusading knights in search of romance, lighted suddenly on a pile or group of furniture in a distant corner. There was other furniture in the garret, certainly more interesting to a connoisseur and hunter of antiquities; but Barrie was neither. She had contrived to seize upon a good deal of queer miscellaneous knowledge outside lesson hours, yet she did not know the difference between Sheraton and Hepplewhite. Chairs and sideboards and settees of Georgian days and earlier had been relegated to this vast pound of unwanted things, while their places were dishonourably filled downstairs by mid-Victorian monstrosities which Mrs. MacDonald instinctively approved, no doubt because they could offer no temptation to the eye. Barrie might have felt the beauty of the graceful lines if she had given her attention to these scattered relics of a past before there was a Grandma; but a group of very different furniture beckoned her curiosity.
The fact that there was a group, and that it seemed in the dimness to be alike in colour and design, suggested mystery of some sort; and, besides, it was almost impossible to imagine such furniture adorning this house.
Evidently it had been taken bodily out of one room. Why? As she asked herself this question Barrie threaded her way delicately along narrow paths between chairs, extraordinary leather or hairy cowhide trunks and thrilling bandboxes of enormous size, made quaintly beautiful with Chinese wall-paper. She wanted to examine the grouped furniture whose pale coverings and gilded wood glimmered attractively even in the darkest corner of the garret.
It certainly was the darkest and farthest. Was this a coincidence, or had there been a special reason for huddling these things out of sight? There was not even a clear path to them, though there seemed to have been method in planning most of the lanes that led from one luggage or furniture village to another. Nothing led to this village built against a wall. Its site was in a no-thoroughfare, and, perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, a barricade had been erected before it; not a very high barricade, but a wall or series of stumbling-blocks made up of useless litter. If there could be a special corner of disgrace in this land where all things were under decree of banishment, here was the corner.
By means of crawling over, under, and between numerous strangely assorted objects which formed the barricade, the intruder arrived, somewhat the worse for wear, at her destination. The furniture village was composed, she discovered, of a set of blue satin-covered chairs and sofas, with elaborately carved and gilded frames. There were tables to match, and an empty glass cabinet, two long mirrors with marble brackets underneath, also a highly ornamental chest of drawers and a bedstead of gilded cane and wood, with cupids holding garlands of carved roses.
Barrie began talking to herself half aloud, according to long-established habit. "Good gracious me!" she exclaimed so inelegantly that it was well Miss Hepburn could not hear. "What things to find in this house! They're like—like canary birds in an ironmonger's shop. Who could have owned them?"
Suddenly the answer flashed into her head, and sent the blood to her face as if she had received a stinging slap such as Grandma used to give: "These things were my mother's!"
How insulting that these traces of the vanished one should have been hustled into a dingy hole where no self-righteous eyes could be offended by the sight of them! How frivolous and daintily young they looked, even in their dusty and (Barrie was furiously sure) undeserved disgrace! This was the secret of the locked garret!
The girl occasionally had moments of hatred for Grandma: moments when she thought it would have delighted her to see the grim old Puritan scoffed at and humiliated, or even tortured. At the picture of torture, however, Barrie's heart invariably failed, and in fancy she rescued the victim. But never had she hated Mrs. MacDonald so actively as now.
"My mother!" she said again. "How dared the wicked old creature be such a brute to her!"
For Barrie was certain that these were relics of her mother's presence in the house. She knew the history of every other woman who had ever lived here since the place was built in the seventeenth century by an Alexander Hillard, an ancestor of Grandma's. A forbidding old prig he must have been, judging from the portrait over the dining-room mantelpiece, a worthy forbear of Ann Hillard, who had married Barrie's grandfather, John MacDonald of Dhrum. Barrie often said to herself that she did not feel related to Grandma. She wanted to be all MacDonald and—whatever her mother had been. But it was just that which she did not know, and not a soul would tell. This was her grievance, the great and ever-burning grievance as well as mystery of her otherwise commonplace existence; a conspiracy of silence which kept the secret under lock and key.
Because of Mrs. MacDonald's "taboo," Barrie's mother had become her ideal. The girl felt that whatever Grandma disapproved must be beautiful and lovable; and there had been enough said, as well as enough left unsaid whenever dumbness could mean condemnation, to prove that the old woman had detested her daughter-in-law.
All Barrie knew about the immediate past of her family was that her father's people had once been rich, and as important as their name implied. They were the MacDonalds of Dhrum, an island not far from Skye, but they had lost their money; and while old Mrs. MacDonald was still a young married woman (it seemed incredible that she could have been young!) she and her husband, with their one boy, had come to her old home near Carlisle. This one boy had grown up to marry—Somebody, or, according to the standards of Grandma, Nobody, a creature beyond the pale. The bride must have died soon, for even Barrie's elastic memory, which could recall first steps taken alone and first words spoken unprompted, had no niche in it for a mother's image, though father's portrait was almost painfully distinct. It presented a young man very tall, very thin, very sad, very dark. The frame for this portrait was the black oak of the library wainscoting, picked out with the faded gold on backs of books in a uniform binding of brown leather. Once a day Barrie had been escorted by her nurse to the door of the library and left to the tender mercies of this sad young man, who raised his eyes resignedly from reading or writing to emit a "How do you do?" as if she were a grown-up stranger. After this question and a suitable reply, not much conversation followed, for neither could think of anything to say. After an interval of strained politeness, the child was dismissed to play or lessons—generally lessons, even from the first, for play had never been considered of importance in Hillard House. It was nobler, in the estimation of Grandma, and perhaps of father, to learn how to spell "the fat cat sat on the black rug," rather than to sprawl personally on the black rug, sporting in company with the fat cat.
One day, Barrie remembered, she had been told that father was ill and she could not bid him good morning. She had been treacherously glad, for father was depressing; but when days passed and she was still kept from him, it occurred to her that after all father was much, much nicer than Grandma, and that his eyes, though sad, were kind. The next and last time she ever saw him, the kind sad eyes were shut, and he was lying in a queer bed, like a box. He was white as a doll made of porcelain which he had once given her, and Grandma, who led the child into his room, said that he was dead. The sleeping figure in the box was only the body, and the soul had gone to heaven. Heaven, according to Grandma, who wore black and had red rims round her eyes, was a place high up above the sky where if you were a sheep you played constantly on a harp and sang songs. If you were a goat, you did not get there at all, which might have been preferable, except for the fact that being a goat doomed you to burn in everlasting fire. Sheep were saved, goats were damned; and, of course, the sheep must be deserving and clever if they had learned to sing and play on harps.
Barrie thought she could have been no more than three when her father died, but she never cared to question Grandma concerning the episode, after a day when Mrs. MacDonald said in an icy voice, "Your mother was before God guilty of your father's death." That was years ago now, but Barrie had not forgotten the shock, or the hateful, thwarted feeling, almost like suffocation, when Grandma had answered an outbreak of hers with the words, "The less you know about your mother the better for you. And the less like her you grow up, the more chance you will have of escaping punishment in this world and the next."
Barrie believed that her mother's hair must have been red, for once she had heard nurse say to Mrs. Muir, "No wonder the sight of the child's a daily eyesore to the mistress; what with them identical dimples, and hair of the selfsame shade, it must be a living reminder of what we'd all be glad to forget." Barrie's hair was extremely red; and it had been intimated to her that no red-haired girl could have cause for vanity, because to such unfortunates beauty was denied; but loyalty to the unknown mother forbade the child to hate her copper-coloured locks.
In a room decorated with pale blue satin, red hair might perhaps simulate gold. The furniture was quite new-looking and unless there had been some special reason, no mere change of taste would have induced economical Grandma to make a clean sweep of these practically unused things.
A tall mirror with its wooden back turned outward helped to screen the furniture; and deep under the dusty surface of the glass Barrie saw her own figure dimly reflected, like a form moving stealthily in water beneath thin ice. It half frightened her, like seeing a spirit, and she brought the gliding ghost to life by polishing the glass. This gave her back suddenly the only friend she had, herself, and she was glad of the companionship. Close to the huddled furniture stood a large trunk, a Noah's Ark of a trunk. Perhaps it was old-fashioned, but compared to other luggage stored here in the garret it was new and defiantly smart. It had a rounded top, and was made of gray painted wood clamped with iron.
Too good to be true that it should not be locked! And yes, locked it was, of course. But tied to the iron handle on one end was a key. It seemed as if some one had thought that the trunk might be sent for, and therefore the key must be kept handy. The knot was easily undone. The key fitted the lock. Her heart beating fast, Barrie lifted the lid, and up to her nostrils floated a faint fragrance. She had never smelled any perfume quite like it before. The nearest thing was the scent of a certain rose in the garden when its petals were dried, as she dried them sometimes for a bowl in her own room.
It was deep twilight in this corner, but Barrie's eyes were accustoming themselves to the gloom. In the tray of the big trunk there were hats, and masses of something fluffy and soft, yet crisp like gauze. "My mother's things!" she said to herself in a very little voice, with a catch of the breath at the word "mother." And gently she lifted out the tray, to carry it nearer the light. There was a cartwheel of a Leghorn hat in it, wreathed with cornflowers; another hat of white tulle trimmed with a single waterlily, and a queer little bonnet made of forget-me-nots. The fluffy stuff was a large blue scarf spangled with pinkish sequins.
Barrie rested the tray on a marble-topped table, and dipped deep into the trunk for other treasures. There were several dresses, of delicate materials and pale shades, or else of daring colours elaborately trimmed. There was a gown of coral-tinted satin embroidered with gold, and this was of Empire fashion, so like the styles which Barrie saw in illustrated papers that it might have been made yesterday. Could a red-haired woman have chosen to wear such a colour? For a moment the girl doubted that these had been her mother's possessions; but when she held the folds of satin under her own chin, she was startled by the picture in the mirror. Why, coral was far more becoming than blue, which Miss Hepburn always said was the only colour to go with red hair. It even occurred to Barrie that she might perhaps be—well, almost pretty.
"What if I am pretty, after all?" she asked herself; for she worshipped beauty, and it had been sad to feel that to her it was denied forever—that never could she be like one of those lovely beings in books with whom men fall desperately in love, and for whom they gladly die.
In great excitement she took off her short, badly made blue serge, and put on the coral satin, which was low in the neck, and had tiny puffed sleeves. The dress fastened at the back, but Barrie had grown clever in "doing up" her own frocks without help, and she easily managed the few hooks and eyes. The satin was creased, but in the dim light it looked fresh and beautiful as the petals of some gorgeous flower, and the long, straight-hanging gown with magic suddenness turned the childlike girl into a young woman. The two massive tails of hair, which fell over Barrie's shoulders, ending in thick curls at her waist, now offended her sense of fitness. They were not "grown up" enough to suit the wearer of this fairy robe; and crossing the braids at the back of her head, she brought them round it over her ears, tying the two curls together in a sort of bow at the top.
"I'm like Cinderella dressed for the ball," she thought, "all except the glass slippers," and she glanced down distastefully at the thick, serviceable boots whose toes pointed out from under a line of gold embroidery.
There must once have been shoes to match this dress. Perhaps they were at the bottom of the big trunk, whose depths she had not yet reached. Bending down for another search, she caught sight of something in the background which she had not seen—a large picture with its face against the wall.
Instantly Barrie forgot the shoes. Her heart jumped as it had jumped when she first saw the key in the door of the garret stairs. Would they have turned to the wall in this dark corner any picture save one? The girl knew that in another moment she would be looking at the portrait of her mother.
To get at it, she had to shut the trunk and climb on the rounded lid, for the big wooden Noah's Ark was too heavy to lift, and too firmly wedged in among large pieces of furniture to be pushed out of the way. Kneeling on the trunk, regardless of her finery, Barrie grasped the picture frame with both hands and pulled it up from its narrow hiding-place. Then, scrambling down, she backed out into a space clear enough to permit of turning the picture, round. Then she could not help giving a little cry, for it seemed that she was beholding a miracle. Her own face, her own figure, the very dress she wore, and the odd way she had looped up her red braids, were repeated on the dusty canvas.
It seemed too wonderful to be true, yet it was true that she had chosen to put on the gown in which its owner had long ago stood for her portrait. And the knotted curls just above the picture-forehead were like little ruddy leaping flames.
Just at first glance Barrie thought that she was exactly like the picture; but when she had wiped the dust off the canvas, and saw the painting clearly, she began to realize and count the differences. The portrait was that of a young woman, not a girl still almost a child. Knowledge and love of the world glittered in the great dark eyes which turned up ever so slightly at their outer corners in a curiously bewitching way. Barrie's eyes were dark too, but they were hazel, and could look gray or even greenish yellow in a bright light; but the eyes in the picture were almost black, and full of a triumphing consciousness of their own fascination. The artist had hinted at dimples, and these Barrie's cheeks repeated; but the girl's face was in shape a delicate oval, though the chin was as firm as if a loving thumb and finger had pinched it into prominence. The face on the canvas was fuller, shorter, squarer, and its chin was cleft in the middle. The mouth was smaller and more pouting—a self-conscious, petulant mouth; but Barrie thought it beautiful, with its flowerlike, half-smiling red lips.
"Mother—mother!" she said, "darling, lovely mother! Oh, if you could only talk to me! If you could only tell me all about yourself!"
As she spoke aloud something moved in the garret: a board creaked, a struck chair or table scraped along the uneven floor, and Mrs. Muir appeared round a corner of the piled furniture. Barrie stiffened herself, standing up straight and tall and defiant, ready for battle, holding the portrait as if it were a shield. But she was not prepared to see Mrs. Muir start back, stumbling against something which fell with a sharp crash, nor to hear her give vent to a squeal of terror. It was anger the girl had expected to rouse, not fear, and she faced the old housekeeper from her distance in blank astonishment.
They stood staring at each other across the shadows lit by floating motes of gold; and Mrs. Muir's large, pallid face looked, Barrie thought, as if it had been turned to gray stone, the gray stone of the carved monuments in the family burial-ground. For a moment neither spoke, but at last some words seemed to drop from the old woman's mouth, rather than be deliberately uttered:
"May God have mercy on me!"
"What is the matter?" Barrie exclaimed, the strange spell broken; but instead of answering, Mrs. Muir gasped, and then broke out crying, a queer gurgly sort of crying which frightened the girl. She did not dislike the housekeeper, and she was so genuinely distressed as well as surprised at this strange exhibition, that she would have set down the portrait to run to Mrs. Muir's succour if at that moment the stillness of the garret had not been wakened by the tap, tap of a stick. Somebody was coming up the stairs, hobbling, limping, yet hurrying with extraordinary energy.
There was only one person in the house, or maybe in the world, whose coming made that noise, that mingled hobble, rush, and tap: Grandma.
Barrie and Mrs. Muir continued to stare at one another, but their expression had changed. The approach of a danger to be shared in common had made the enemies friends. "This is going to be awful. What shall we do?" the old eyes said to the young and the young eyes said to the old. Mrs. Muir had forgotten her burning wish and intention to scold Miss Barribel; nevertheless, the housekeeper was not to be trusted as an ally. Under the lash of Mrs. MacDonald's tongue she would defend herself, and Barrie would go to the wall. But the spirit of the martyr was in the girl, and when the first dread thrill of the tap, tap on the garret stairs had subsided in her nerves, she remembered her wrongs and her mother's wrongs, and was not afraid of Grandma. She girded herself for war.
The tapping came nearer. Mrs. MacDonald was grievously crippled with rheumatism. Only a strong incentive could have urged her up the steep straight stairway, with its high steps; but Grandma was indomitable. Lurching like a ship in a heavy sea, she swept round the corner and brought herself to anchor by planting her stick with a crash on the wavy oak floor. There she stood, the grim and hard old craft that had weathered a hundred storms and refused to be dismayed by any. She must have been alarmed by the housekeeper's scream and the crash of falling furniture, and the figure in the coral satin dress was at least as startling for her as for her old servant; but she gave no cry, and her face looked as it always looked, hard, and stern, and passionless, as her gray eyes travelled from granddaughter to housekeeper, from housekeeper to granddaughter.
"What is the meaning of this?" she inquired in her worst voice, which Barrie always thought like the turning of a key in an unoiled lock.
"This, ma'am?" quavered Mrs. Muir, unused to the pangs of guilty fear, and bitterly ashamed of them. "Why, I'd been up here getting some more moth-balls out of the chemist's store-box, and while I was gone Miss Barribel——"
"You must have left the stairway door unlocked, woman."
"For the first time in my life, ma'am, I did." The answer was an appeal for justice if not mercy. It was an awful thing to be called "woman" by the mistress, and to be impaled on that sharp gray gaze never sheathed behind spectacles. Mrs. Muir was not one to quail easily, but she had been at fault, and she realized how her small sin of omission was leading up to consequences more momentous than anything which had happened in this house for seventeen years. In a flash she remembered, too, that it was just seventeen years ago this month of August since the first wearer of the coral satin had gone forever.
"That is no excuse," said Mrs. MacDonald. "There are some things it is a sin to forget. Locking the garret door is one, you well know why. Now the mischief is done."
"Who'd ha' dreamed, ma'am, that Miss Barribel would ha' bin on the watch like a cat for a mouse——"
"It's no question of dreaming, but experience. You ought to know as well as I do that unfortunately the girl is always on the watch for anything she ought not to see or do. It is in her blood. These many years I have struggled to crush down inherited tendencies, and keep her on the straight path I would have her father's daughter tread. Yet how have I succeeded? Every day shows how little. This is only one instance among many."
The pale cold eyes, having chilled Mrs. Muir's blood, turned to do their work of icing Barrie into subjection; but the girl's veins ran fire. For once, Grandma was powerless to make her feel a frozen worm.
"I wish I'd known before that my mother's things were here," she said, in a clear, loud voice. "I'd have broken down the door to get to them. They're mine—all mine. I will have them."
"You will not," Mrs. MacDonald answered. "Set that portrait back where you found it with its face to the wall. Take off that immodest, outrageous dress, and put on your own decent one. Fold up the scarlet abomination and lay it in the trunk with the rest of the brood."
Somehow that word "brood" in connection with her lost mother's gay, pretty garments made Barrie see her grandmother through a red haze. "It's the things you say, not mother's lovely clothes, that are exactly like a brood of horrid, ugly imps!" she cried. "Always you've kept everything about her a secret from me, but you can't go on doing it now. I've seen her beautiful picture. I know it's hers without any telling. Nothing can make me believe it isn't, no matter what you say, either of you. So you may as well tell me all about her. I won't move till you do."
"So be it, then," said Mrs. MacDonald in an iron voice. "The time had to come some day. Let it be to-day, though for your father's sake I would have spared you the knowledge until you reached your twenty-first year. Do not flatter yourself that your threat 'not to move' has the smallest effect on me. It has none. If I chose, I could force you to obey me this instant, and put those reminders of sin out of my sight. But if you have any sense of shame in you, any affection for your father's memory, it will be the severest punishment I can inflict to tell you the truth while you are wearing that dress and looking at the face of that portrait."
Despite her inward flame of fury, which did not wane, the girl was struck into silence by her grandmother's tone and manner. She stood very still and white in the coral satin.
"You can go now, Muir," said Mrs. MacDonald. "What is to come must be between me and my son's child."
Without a word the housekeeper turned and went away. Perhaps she was glad to escape. And now that her own scolding was over, there was sympathy in the last look she threw the girl.
There was a certain vague and very dim sense of gratitude in Barrie's heart toward Mrs. MacDonald for what she had just done. For Barrie did not want other ears to hear evil words spoken of her mother, and she was sure that they would be spoken.
Not until the stairs had ceased to creak under the departing feet did Grandma again open her lips. She had seemed to be thinking intently, as if making up her mind how to begin. Perhaps she was praying for guidance, Barrie told herself; but the morning and evening prayers in the dining-room with a few servants assembled were like harangues or didactic instructions to Heaven rather than supplications. Barrie thought that her grandmother had created a God for herself in her own image, and considered that she had a right, therefore, to tell Him what to do. Why should an all-good, all-wise God create a disagreeable, unkind person like Grandma? It didn't stand to reason. And Miss Hepburn was of opinion that God was indeed beneficent, in spite of those eternal fires in which she, almost equally with Grandma, fervently believed.
When there was no further sound of the housekeeper, Mrs. MacDonald began to speak, slowly and very deliberately.
"My son married against my will. His father was dead, and a woman's authority was not enough, for he was stubborn, though a good son until she got hold of him with her witcheries and her false charms. He met her in London, and took her out of the theatre, where he had no business to go; and if he never had gone, all our troubles would have been saved. The woman was a play-actress—a light, frivolous creature with no more sense of moral responsibility than a butterfly."
"Butterflies are beautiful!" Barrie broke in. "God made them, I suppose, just as much as He made ants, and I'm sure He loves them heaps better." She thought of her grandmother as a big black ant, hoarding disagreeable crumbs in a gloomy hole.
Mrs. MacDonald went on as if she had not heard.
"The woman married my son because he had money, and when she had spent all she could lay her hands on—spent it on dresses and hats and every kind of sinful vanity—she left him and his home, left her baby a year old, to return to the theatre, I suppose. I thank God that I still had influence with Robert my son to keep him from running after her like a love-sick fool, and trying to bring her back to the decent home she had disgraced. But his heart was broken by her wicked folly. Two years they'd had together under this roof and the disappointments she had made the boy suffer undermined his health. Two years more he was spared to me, and then he was taken. Never once did your mother write to him or to me, not so much as to ask whether her husband and child were alive or dead. While Robert lived, her things remained in her room just as she had left them the night she stole away like a thief, carrying only a handbag. There was the furniture the poor bewitched man had bought because he thought nothing in his mother's house was fit for his wonderful bride. There were her clothes—the very dress you have on, made on purpose to show off her brazen looks in a portrait she induced my son to order from a painting man. There was everything, except her jewels, which she was careful to take—jewels more fit for an empress of a heathen nation than a self-respecting Englishwoman: and that is where the root of the mischief lay. She wasn't English. I warned my son in the beginning when he wrote of his infatuation. I said, 'It is bad enough that she should be a play-actress; but the daughter of an Irish father and an American mother, that is fatal!' He would not listen, and he was punished for his obstinacy. You were no comfort to him, for, as I pointed out many a time, you were bound to grow up the living image of the woman who had betrayed us. I told him if he lived he'd have it all to go over again in you—maybe worse, if that could be possible, for the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children even to the third and fourth——"
"But I thought it was my mother I was like," Barrie flung at her.
"Figuratively speaking, it is the same thing, as you well understand, unless you are a fool. Your father was not strong enough to bear the burden which his own mistakes had bound on his shoulders. He left the responsibility of bringing up that woman's daughter to me, and under Heaven I have done my best. I have kept you away from vanities, hoping that in spite of all you might remain unspotted from the world. But blood will tell. To-day I find that, as your mother before you stole like a thief out of the house, so you have stolen into this place, which was forbidden you, to gratify your curiosity and your vanity. I find you as bold as brass parading in that low-necked red dress, which I told your mother was a shame to any woman when I saw her flaunting in it. Now you know what she was, and what you are and are like to be. I tell you again, take off that gown as you would tear off a poisoned toad from your flesh; then go down to your own room and spend the rest of the day in prayer and meditation."
It was a triumph for Grandma that Barrie did not throw at her an insolent answer. For a moment the girl did not reply at all. Then she said, in a singularly quiet way, that she would take off the dress and put it back in the trunk, but not unless her grandmother would leave her alone to do it. Afterward, she would ask nothing better than to go to her own room and stay there. "I want to think," she added; "I have a lot to think about. But I shall think only good things of my mother. What you have told me has made me very, very happy. I believed that my mother was dead. Now I know she's in the same world with me, I could almost die of joy."
"It is like her daughter to feel that," Mrs. MacDonald returned bitterly. "If you are not downstairs in ten minutes, I will have the door locked and keep you in the garret without food or drink or light for twenty-four hours."
"I should love that!" exclaimed Barrie suddenly, in the manner of her old self. Nevertheless, she descended and advertised her return to the prosaic world by closing the door loudly in less than ten minutes after Mrs. MacDonald had gone.
She walked straight into her own room and bolted herself in. If Grandma had seen her then, she could not have helped admitting that there was as much of Robert MacDonald in the lines of the girl's face as of the guileful Barbara Ballantree.
No notice was taken of Barrie until half-past eight o'clock that night—half-past eight being considered night in Mrs. MacDonald's house-hold. At that time, just as the hour was announced by an old friend, the grandfather clock on the landing, who had seen the girl go into the garret, Miss Janet Hepburn knocked at Barrie's door.
"Barribel," she called, as always pronouncing the fanciful name with a certain reluctance, partly on principle, partly because it was known to have been chosen by "that woman." "Barribel, by your grandmother's permission, I've brought you some supper. Open your door and take in the tray."
A voice answered from behind the panel, "I'll open the door if you will bring in the tray yourself."
Miss Hepburn hesitated for a moment. In the dun gaslight of the corridor her sharp profile looked eager as the face of a hungry bird. She thought quickly. Mrs. MacDonald had not yet finished her own supper. No such frivolity as evening dinner was known at Hillard House. Soup after dark except for an invalid would have been considered a pitfall; but the old lady liked to linger alone over the last meal of the day, reading a religious volume by the light of a lamp placed on the table at the left of her plate. When Miss Hepburn and Barrie finished they always, as a matter of form, asked to be excused, though they both knew, and Mrs. MacDonald knew that they knew, how more than willing she was to be left alone with her book. At a quarter past nine the servants were called, they having already supped on bread and cheese. A chapter, preferably from the Old Testament, was read, a prayer offered up, and at nine-thirty precisely the family was ready to go to bed. Miss Hepburn had reason to believe that for three quarters of an hour she was free to do as she wished, and she wished as ardently as she was able to wish anything, to see Barrie. She had heard next to nothing of the day's events from Mrs. MacDonald, whose companion she was supposed to be now that the girl no longer needed her whole morning's services as governess. And from Mrs. Muir, into whose room she had slipped at tea-time, very little had been dragged out. Yet it was certain that something tremendous had happened. If she wanted to know what, her one hope lay with Barrie.
"Very well," she said, with the proper mingling of kindness and dignity, "I will bring in the tray."
The door immediately opened, and closed again after the flat figure of Miss Hepburn. Barrie thought that if the good Janet had been born a fish she would have been a skate, or at roundest a sole. Even her profile was flat, as if the two sides of her face had been pressed firmly together by a strong pair of hands. She wore her hair very flat on her head, which was flat behind; and just at the nape of the neck was a flat drab-tinted knot, of almost the same grayish-yellowish brown as her complexion. On her flat breast was a flat brooch with a braid of pale hair as a background. Even her voice sounded flat in its effort at meekness and self-repression, calculated to appease Mrs. MacDonald in trying circumstances. Miss Hepburn looked about forty-five; but she had always looked forty-five for the last twelve years, and Barrie could hardly have believed that she had ever been younger.
"Your grandmother thinks that you have now been sufficiently punished," she announced, "and you are to come down as usual to prayers."
"Oh, am I?" echoed Barrie. "We'll see about that. As for punishment, if it pleases Grandma to think she's punished me, she may. I don't care. She couldn't have made me come out of my room to-day if she tried. But I don't bear you any grudge, Heppie. I'm very glad to see you. I want you to tell me things."
"What things?" inquired Miss Hepburn. "I didn't come to talk. I am here simply to see you begin your supper. You must be—er—very hungry."
"I've had plenty of food all day," said Barrie—"food for thought." She cleared a place on the one table by pushing a few school-books out of the way. She had been sitting in the twilight, for she was not allowed to have matches. Their possession might have tempted her to burn gas after ten o'clock, when at latest all lights had to be out. Now, Janet Hepburn brought a box of matches on the tray; and the gas, when lit, showed the sparsely furnished room with its gray-painted, pictureless wall, against which Barrie's red hair glowed like a flame. Outside the open window the old ivy and the young peeping roses, which had been green and pink and gold in the twilight, lost their colour as the gas flared up, and evening out of doors darkened into night.
"I've brought you bread and cheese with a slice of cold beef," announced Miss Hepburn, "and Mrs. Muir has baked you a potato, but I am not sure whether your grandmother would approve of that. She distinctly said a cold supper."
"Will you please thank Mrs. Muir for me?" Barrie asked.
"You can thank her to-morrow."
"I mayn't have a chance. Do thank her for me to-night. Say I wanted you to."
"Why are you in such a hurry?"
"Oh—just because. Will you?"
"Yes, I will try, after prayers, when she is shutting up the house. Now, eat your supper."
"I don't want to, yet. Please, Heppie, dear Heppie, tell me what you know about my mother. You weren't here when she was, but you're a kind of cousin of Grandma's, and you must have heard all about her."
"If I had, that would not give me the right to tell you," replied Miss Hepburn, clinging desperately to her stiff dignity, despite the pleading voice and the "dear, dear Heppie," against which, being one third human, she was not quite proof. It was always difficult not to be beguiled by Barrie.
"I've only you I can come to," said the girl. "You're the one person in the house except me who isn't old and dried-up."
This was a stroke of genius, but the genius of instinct, for Barrie had no experience in the art of cajolery. "Was I named after my mother?"
"Only partly. She was a Miss Ballantree, and her first name was Barbara, I believe; but she disliked it, and when her husband wished to have the child christened the same, she insisted on Barribel. It seems that is an old Scottish name also, or Celtic perhaps, for she was Irish, though I know nothing of her family. But Barribel has always sounded frivolous to me."
"Yet you would never call me Barrie when I begged you to. I wonder if there ever was another girl who had to make up her own pet name, and then had nobody who would use it except herself? When I talk to myself I always say 'Barrie,' in different tones of voice, to hear how it sounds. I try to say it as if I loved myself, because no one else loves me—unless maybe you do; just a tiny, tiny bit. Do you, Heppie?"
"Of course I have an affection for you," Miss Hepburn returned decorously, half alarmed at so pronounced a betrayal of her inner emotions, "and naturally your grandmother——"
"Let's not talk about her now," Barrie pleaded. "Was my mother young when she was married?"
"Quite young, I understand—about nineteen."
"Only nineteen—not very much older than I am. And she stood two years of Grandma and this house!"
"Barribel, you forget yourself."
"If I do, it's because I'm thinking about my mother. Twenty—twenty-one; that's what she was when she—went away!"
"She must have been. Of course, it is not my place to——"
"No, dear Heppie, I know it isn't, so don't, please. Could even you blame her for wanting to run away from this awful house, and she an Irish girl?"
"She was half American, I have heard."
"Perhaps, for all I know about Americans, that made it even harder for her to stand Grandma—and everything else. Anyhow, I don't blame her—not one bit."
"What! not for deserting her loving husband and her helpless child?"
"All day I've been wondering if father knew how to show his love for her. He didn't to me. I can remember that. I used to be afraid of him and glad to escape. Perhaps he made her feel like that too—oh, without meaning it. I'm sure he was good. But so is Grandma good—horribly good. There's something about this house that spoils goodness, and turns it to a kind of poison. It must have been awfully depressing to be married to father if one had any fun in one, and loved to laugh. As for the 'helpless child,' I dare say I was a horrid little squalling brat with scarlet hair and a crimson face and a vile temper, that no one could possibly love."
"It is a mother's duty to love her child, in spite of its appearance; and if it has a bad temper, all the more should she endeavour by prayer and example to eradicate its faults in bringing it up. At least, so I have always been taught. Personally, of course," Heppie hastened to add, "I know nothing of motherhood and its duties."
"Then you never played dolls," said Barrie gravely. "I never had but one doll—the porcelain-headed darling father gave me. Grandma let me keep it because it came from him, and I did love it dearly! I do still. I learned just how to be a mother, playing with it. I know I shall be a perfectly sweet mother when I have a child."
"Barribel, you should not say such things. It is most unmaidenly."
"I don't see why," Barrie argued. "Perhaps my mother's people wouldn't let her say such things when she was a young girl, and then she began to be an actress, and was so busy she never had time to learn much about children and duty and that sort of thing. But I won't be unmaidenly any more, dear Heppie—at least, if I can help it—if you'll only do me one great favour."
"What is it?" Miss Hepburn inquired cautiously.
"Tell me what's become of my mother. Oh, you needn't be afraid! Grandma let it out that she's alive. She's not even old yet—not so very old. You must tell me what's happened to her."
"Nothing creditable, I fear," replied Janet, finding a certain sad pleasure in the sins of another, so different from her own good self. "She has, I believe, continued to act on the stage."
"I'm sure she must be the greatest success!" exclaimed Barrie.
"As to that, I have no means of knowing. I always skip news of the theatre in reading the papers aloud to Mrs. MacDonald."
"Oh, just to think that any day I might have seen things about my mother in the newspapers, and perhaps even her pictures! I wish I'd known! I'd have got at the papers somehow before they were cremated. Now I understand why Grandma tries to keep them out of my hands."
"There were many reasons for that," said Miss Hepburn, loyal to her employer's convictions and her own pallid copies of those convictions. "No really nice girl ever reads the newspapers, or would wish to do so. They are full of wickedness. There is much I have to miss out."
"Do you think my mother has kept her married name for the stage?" Barrie wanted to know.
"That," answered Miss Hepburn almost eagerly, "has been poor Mrs. MacDonald's greatest trial—except your father's death. To think that the name of her son—the name of his great ancestors—should be bandied about in the theatres!"
"Then she does call herself MacDonald!"
"I fear that is the case. But now it will be useless asking me any more questions, for I shall not answer them. Will you let me see you begin your supper?"
"No, dear Heppie, for I'm not hungry; and I want to think. Thank you so much for talking to me, and being so kind. I believe you'd often like to be kind when you daren't."
Miss Hepburn looked slightly surprised. She had expected to be teased for further information, rather than thanked cordially for that already doled out. "I try to do my duty both to your grandmother and you," she returned. "I really must go now, and I shall not have to lock your door again, as Mrs. MacDonald considers the punishment over. You must be careful to come down the minute you hear the bell, and not be late for prayers."
"Good-bye, if you must go," said Barrie, following the small, stiff figure to the door. "I—I wish you'd kiss me, Heppie."
Janet actually started, and a blush produced itself in a way peculiar to her face, appearing mostly upon the nose, where it lingered rosily at the end. Kisses were not exchanged under Mrs. MacDonald's roof. Barrie's was a most disquieting suggestion, and sounded as if she had a presentiment that she was about to die or, at the best, be very ill. Still, there was no real impropriety in an ex-governess kissing her late pupil; and possibly the desire revealed a spirit of repentance and meekness on the part of Barribel, which deserved to be encouraged. Without spoken questions, therefore, Miss Hepburn pecked with her unkissed virgin lips the firm pink satin of Barrie's cheek. The deed seemed curiously epoch-making, and stirred her oddly. She was ashamed of the feeling she had, rather like a bird waking up from sleep and fluttering its wings in her breast. Her nose burned; and she hastened her departure lest Barribel should notice some undignified difference in manner or expression.
"I shall see you again downstairs in a few minutes," she said hurriedly.
Barrie did not answer, and Miss Hepburn softly shut the door.
Instantly the girl began making a sandwich of the bread and cheese, which she wrapped up in a clean handkerchief. She would not take the napkin, because that belonged to Grandma. Hanging up in the wardrobe was a long cloak of the MacDonald hunting tartan, which looked as if it had been fashioned out of a man's plaid. On each side was a pocket; and into one of these Barrie slipped her little package. Already made up and lying on the floor of the wardrobe was another parcel, very much bigger, rolled in dark green baize which might have been a small table cover. From a shelf Barrie snatched a tam-o'-shanter, also a dark green in colour. Absent-mindedly she pulled it over her head, and the green brightened the copper red of her hair. Slipping her arms into the sleeves of the queer cloak, she caught up her bundle, turned down the gas, and peeped cautiously out into the corridor. No one was there. The house was very still. Grandma's bell for reading and prayer would not ring yet for twenty minutes or more. The girl tiptoed out, locked the door behind her, and slipped the key into the pocket with the sandwiches. If any one came to call her to prayers, it would appear that she had shut herself in and was refusing to answer.
"Car-l-i-s-l-e!" The Caruso voice of a gifted railway porter intoned the word in two swelling syllables, so alluring in their suggestion to passengers that it was strange the whole train did not empty itself upon the platform. So far from this being the case, however, not more than six men and half as many women, one with two sleepy, whimpering children, obeyed the siren call.
Five of the men looked for porters, and eventually culled them, like stiff-stemmed wayside plants; but the sixth man had not set his foot on the platform before he was accosted by two would-be helpers.
What there was about him so different from, and so superior to, his fellow-travellers that it was visible to the naked eye at night, in a not too brilliantly lighted railway station, could be explained only by experts in the art of deciding at a glance where the best financial results are to be obtained.
The man was not richly dressed, was not decked out with watch-chains and scarf-pins and rings, nor had he a shape to hint that the possession of millions had led to self-indulgence. Many people would have passed him by with a glance, thinking him exactly like other men of decent birth and life who knew how to wear their clothes; but railway porters and romantic women (are there other women?) have a special instinct about men. The two female passengers unhampered by howling babies looked at him as they went by, and they would instinctively have known, though even they could not have explained, why the porters unhesitatingly selected this man as prey.
He was not very tall, and not very handsome, and he was not conspicuous in any way: but if he had been an actor, a deaf and blind audience would somehow have felt with a thrill that he had come upon the stage. The secret was not intricate: only something of which people talk a dozen times a day without knowing technically what they mean—personal magnetism. He was rather dark and rather thin, rather like a conquering soldier in his simple yet authoritative way of giving orders for what he wanted done. He had eyes which were of an almost startling blueness in his sunburned face: a peculiarity that made strangers look twice at him sometimes. If his features hardened into a certain cynical grimness when he thought about things that really mattered, his smile for things that didn't matter was singularly pleasant.
He did not smile at the porters as he pointed out that, besides his suit-case, he had only one small piece of luggage in the van, to be taken to his automobile; and there were other passengers who looked much jollier and more amenable than he: yet it was to him that a girl spoke as he was about to walk past her, after his chosen porter.
"Oh! Will you please be so very kind as to wait a minute!" she exclaimed.
Her "Oh!" was like a barrier suddenly thrown down in front of him. Of course he stopped; and if he were not greatly astonished it was only because so many odd things had happened to him in life, in railway stations and drawing rooms and in all sorts of other places, that it took a great deal to make him feel surprise, and still more to make him show it.
He was roused to alertness, however, when he saw what manner of girl invited him to "wait a minute." He had never seen one like her before. And yet, of whose face did hers piquantly remind him? He had a dim impression that it was quite a celebrated face, and no wonder, if it were like this one. The only odd thing was that he could not remember whose the first face had been, for such features could never let themselves be wiped off memory's slate.
The girl was almost a child, apparently, for her hair hung in two long bright red braids over her extraordinary cloak; and her big eyes were child's eyes. What her figure was like, except that she was a tall, long-legged, upstanding young creature, no one could judge, not even an anatomist, because of that weird wrap. As a cloak it was a shocking production—a hideous, unbelievable contribution to cloakhood from the hands of a mantle-making vandal—but it caught the man's interest, because before his eyes danced the hunting tartan of the MacDonalds of Dhrum. Once that particular combination of green, blue, red, brown, purple, and white had flashed to his heart a signal of warm human love, daring and high romance; but he believed that long ago his heart had shut against such deceiving signals. Across the way in, he had printed in big letters "NO THOROUGHFARE," and was unconsciously well pleased with himself because he had done this, thinking it a proof of mature wisdom, keen insight into his brother man—especially perhaps his sister woman—and a general tendency toward scientific, bomb-proof modernity, the triumph of intellect over emotion. And in truth his experiences had been of a kind to change the enthusiastic boy he once had been into the cynical, hard-headed man he was now. Nevertheless, as he looked at the girl in the tartan cloak, he heard within himself the war-cry of the clan MacDonald, "Fraoch Eilean!" and he smelt the heather of the purple isle of Dhrum.
It was many years since he had seen that strangely formed island-shape cut in amethyst against the gold of sunset sky and sea; but the purple and the gold were unforgettable, even for one who thought he had forgotten and lost the magic long ago.
She was a beautiful girl in spite of the ugly tam and the bag of a cloak. Her eyes had the deep light of clear streams that have never reflected other things than trees, shadowing banks of wild flowers, and skies arching above. There was something quaintly arresting about her, apart from the odd clothes.
The man stopped. His porter lumbered on sturdily; but that was just as well. The girl had asked him to wait: so he waited in silence to hear what she would say.
"Will you please look at a thing I want very much to sell?" she began. "Perhaps you'll like to buy it. Nobody else will—but," she added hastily, "I think you'll admire it."
He looked her steadily in the eyes for a few seconds, and she returned the look, in spite of herself rather than because she was determined to give him gaze for gaze.
"Why do you ask me to buy what you have to sell?" he answered by a question. "Is it for charity or the cause of the Suffragettes?"
"Oh, no, it's not for charity!" the girl exclaimed. "And I don't know what you mean by Suffragettes."
The man laughed. "Where have you lived?" he questioned her.
She blushed for an ignorance which evidently struck strangers as fantastic. "Near Carlisle with my grandmother," she explained; "but she's never let me have friends, or make visits, or read the papers. I've just left her house now, and I want to go to London. I must go to London, but I haven't any money, and they won't trust me to pay them for my ticket when I get some. So I tried to sell a piece of jewellery I have, and nobody would buy it. I thought when I saw you come out of the train that maybe you would. I don't know why—but you're different. You look as if you'd know all about valuable things—and whether they're real; and as if you'd be—not stupid, or like these other people."
"Thank you," he returned, and smiled his pleasant smile. If another man had described such a meeting with a pretty and apparently ingenuous girl in a railway station at ten o'clock at night, he would still have smiled, but not the same smile. He would have been sure that the girl was a minx, and the man a fool. He recognized this unreasonableness in himself; nevertheless, he had no doubt that his own instinct about the girl was right. She was genuine of her sort, whatever her strange sort might be; and though he laughed at himself for the impulse, he could not help wanting to do something for her, in an elder-brother way. For an instant his thoughts went to the woman who was waiting for and expecting him, the train being late. But quickly the curtain was drawn before her portrait in his mind.
"You say your grandmother never let you make friends," he said, "yet you seem to believe in your own knowledge of human nature."
"Because, what you aren't allowed to see or do, you think of a great deal more. Knowledge jumps into your head in such an interesting way," the girl answered, with an apologetic air, as a witness might if wishing to conciliate a cross-questioning counsel. "Here's the jewellery I want to sell. It was my father's, and belonged to his father and grandfather."
She opened her ungloved right hand to reveal a bonnet brooch of beautiful and very ancient workmanship showing the crest of the MacDonalds of Dhrum set with a fine cairngorm and some exquisite old paste. It must have come down through many fathers to many sons, for it was at least two hundred years old.
"You would sell this?" the man exclaimed.
"Well, I must get to London," she excused herself, "and it's the only thing I have worth selling. I knew you'd see it was good. The others would hardly look at it, except one quite horrid man who squeezed my hand when I was showing him the brooch, and that made me behave so rudely to him he went away at once."
"Was your father a MacDonald of Dhrum?" asked the man who had not squeezed her hand, and exhibited no wish to do so, though his eyes never left her face.
"Yes. Why, do you know our tartan and crest?"
"I—thought I recognized them." For an instant he was tempted to add an item of information concerning himself, but he beat down the impulse. "If you want money, you can raise something on this without selling it," he went on. "It would be a pity to part with an heirloom."
"I didn't know I could do that," said the girl. "Of course it would be better. I'm going to London to find somebody—my mother," she continued, in a different tone. "When I get to her, she'll give me money, of course, and I can pay you back, if you'll lend me enough now to buy my ticket—and perhaps a little, a very little, more, because I mayn't find her at once. I may have to go on somewhere else after London, though I hope not. Will you lend me some money and keep the brooch till I pay?"
"I might be prepared to do that," said the man slowly. "But you surely don't mean to start off for London alone, in the night."
"Why not?" she argued. "There's no danger in railway trains, is there? I've never been in one yet, but I've read lots about them in books, and I think I shall love travelling."
"You've never been in a train!"
"No, because I was born at Grandma's house, and she never travels anywhere, and I've always lived with her. If my father hadn't died, and my mother hadn't—hadn't been obliged to go away when I was a baby, probably I should have been just like other girls. But now I suppose I must be very different, and seem stupid and queer. Every one stared as if I were a wild animal when I was asking my way to the railway station. But you will lend me the money, won't you, if you think the brooch is worth it, because one of the porters told me there'd be a train for London soon?"
"When people are making up their minds to lend money to strangers, they always put a number of questions first," answered the man gravely, "so I must ask you to excuse me if I catechize you a little before I engage myself to do anything. Do you expect any one to meet you in London, Miss MacDonald?"
"Dear me, no!" and she could not help laughing to hear herself called "Miss MacDonald," a dignity never bestowed on her before. "I don't know any one in London—unless my mother's there."
"Oh, indeed! But London's quite a big place, bigger a good deal than Carlisle, you know, so you may have some difficulty in finding your mother if you aren't sure of the address."
"She hasn't an address—I mean, I don't know it. But she's an actress on the stage. I think she must be so beautiful and splendid that almost every one will have heard of her, so all I will have to say is, 'Please tell me whether Mrs. MacDonald the actress is in London?'"
"Not Mrs. Ballantree MacDonald!" This time he did look surprised.
"Ballantree was her name before she was married," the girl admitted. "And her Christian name's Barbara. Do you know her?"
"I do, slightly," replied the man. "But I had no idea that she——" He broke off abruptly, looking more closely than ever at the vivid face under the knitted tam.
"I suppose, if you don't know her very well, she never spoke to you about having a daughter?" Barrie asked.
"No, she never spoke of it. But look here, Miss MacDonald, as I happen to be an acquaintance—I daren't call myself a friend—of your mother's, you'd better let me advise you a little, without thinking that I'm taking a liberty. From what you say, I have the idea that you've not had time to write Mrs. Bal—I mean, Mrs. Ballantree MacDonald that you're coming to pay her a visit."
"No, I only made up my mind to-day," said Barrie carefully. "Grandma and she aren't good friends, so my mother and I—don't write to each other. Grandma doesn't like the stage, and as you know mother, I don't mind telling you she's been perfectly horrid—Grandma, I mean. She let me believe that mother was dead—just because she's an actress, which I think must be splendid. That's why I'm running away, and wild horses couldn't drag me back."
"I see. Mrs. Ballantree MacDonald will be taken by surprise when you turn up."
"Yes. It will be like things I've dreamed about and invented to make into story-books—really interesting story-books such as Grandma wouldn't let me read, for she approves only of Hannah More. Won't mother be delighted?"
"Just at first her surprise may overcome her natural joy," said the man. "And here is where my advice comes in. It's this: Let the news be broken to your mother before you try to see her. That would be the wisest thing. Besides, she mayn't be in London now—probably isn't. It's past the season there; and Mrs. Ballantree MacDonald is one of those beautiful and successful people, you know, who are generally found at places in the most fashionable time of the year. If she's acting, it will be easy to find out where she is from one of the stage papers. She could be written to, and——"
"No, I want to surprise her!" Barrie persisted. "I want first to see her, for I know she must be a darling and perfectly lovely; and then I want to say, 'Mother, here's your daughter Barribel, that you named yourself, come to love you and live with you always.'"
"Er—yes. It sounds charming," replied the man, gazing at a large advertisement of a new food with quite an odd look in his eyes. "If your heart's set on that scene I've no right to try and dissuade you; but anyhow, the thing to do is to find out where she is before you start, for you might get to London only to have to turn round and come back. In August she's more likely to be in Scotland than in London."
"Oh, is she?" Barrie's face told all her doubt and disappointment. "But I can't wait. I must go somewhere. If I don't take a train, Mrs. Muir our housekeeper and perhaps Miss Hepburn may come here looking for me from Hillard House. I'm afraid they found out at prayer-time that I'd gone, and when they've searched all over the house and garden, they——"
"So you make no bones about running away from home, Miss MacDonald?"
"Neither would you in my place if you and your mother were insulted."
"Perhaps not," the man admitted. "I did something more or less of the sort when I was a year or two older than you—about seventeen——"
"But I'm over seventeen already," Barrie hastened to boast. "I'm eighteen."
The man smiled at her, his nicest smile. "Eighteen! That's very old, and it's only living the retired life you have that's kept you young. Still, there it is! You have lived a retired life, and it's—er—it's left its mark on you. It will take at least some months to efface it, even under your mother's wing. That means you're a bit handicapped among a lot of people who haven't lived retired lives. I don't advise you to go back to your grandmother's house, because you wouldn't anyhow—and besides, you know your own business better than I do; only, of course, you'll have to write to her. As an acquaintance of your mother's, I'd like to put you with some kind people for to-night until we can find out for you just where Mrs. Ballantree MacDonald is. Don't you see that this would be a sensible arrangement, if the people were all right, instead of starting off on a wild-goose chase?"
"Ye-es, perhaps. And it's very kind of you to take an interest for my mother's sake," said Barrie, trying not to show her disappointment ungraciously.
"Of course, for your mother's sake," he repeated, with an expressionless expression. "I call myself Somerled," he added, watching her face as he made his announcement.
She caught him up quickly. "Why, that was the name of the great leader from the North who founded the Clan MacDonald!"
"You know about him, do you—in spite of the retired life?"
"Not to know would disgrace a MacDonald. And just because I have led a retired life I've had more time to learn than girls in the world. I know a good deal—really I do. I've read—heaps of things, behind Grandma's back. Somerled of the Isles is a hero of mine. I didn't know any one had a right to his name nowadays."
"I dare to bear it, like a Standard, with or without right, though unworthily. Somerled of the Isles was my hero too."
"Then you're Scottish, like me," said Barrie. "I don't feel related to Grandma's people, and I don't know anything about mother's. But if you're going to be my friend for her sake, I'm glad your name is Somerled. It's splendid!"
"Yes, it's splendid to be called Somerled," the man agreed, faintly emphasizing the substituted word. "And I'm proud to be a Scot, though I've lived half my life in America, and they think of me there as an American. I've been thinking of myself that way too for seventeen years. But blood's a good deal thicker than water, and I was born on the island of Dhrum."
"Our island!" exclaimed Barrie. "That makes it seem as if we were related."
"I hoped it would, because a Somerled has a right to the trust of a MacDonald. Will you trust me to motor you to my friend Mrs. West, who's stopping just now with her brother in a nice little house just outside Carlisle? It's named Moorhill Farm, and belongs to a Mrs. Keeling, who has lent it to Mrs. West. I'm going there, and they'll be glad to keep you until we can learn where you ought to meet your mother. Perhaps you know of Mrs. Keeling and her house?"
Barrie glanced at him half longingly, half doubtfully. She had been looking forward to the adventure of travelling to London; but if there were less chance of her mother being there than elsewhere, London was wiped off the map. Still Barrie was loth to abandon her plan. To do so was like admitting failure—in spite of the motor, which she would love to try. She had never been within two yards of a motor-car.
"I've seen Mrs. Keeling in church," she said. "She has stick-out teeth. Grandma bows to her. But how can you tell that Mrs. West will be glad to have me?"
"I'll answer for her hospitality," came Somerled's assurance. "You'll like Mrs. West. She's a widow, and a sweet woman. Her brother's as nice as she is—Basil Norman. Perhaps you've heard of them? They write books together—stories about travel and love and motor-cars."
"No," Barrie confessed. "I don't know any authors later than Dickens, unless I see their names in book-sellers' windows, when I come into town with Heppie—Miss Hepburn. If you don't mind, I think I'd rather not go to Mrs. West's. I'm afraid of strangers."
"Are you afraid of me, then?"
"No-o. But you're a man. I'm afraid of women. They stare at your clothes, and I know mine are horrid."
"Mrs. West won't stare. She'll help you buy pretty things to wear when you go to your mother."
"Will she? But how shall I buy them? I haven't any money."
"You'll have money from your father's brooch. Now—will you trust me and come to Mrs. Keeling's house, as your grandmother bows to her?"
"I'd rather go to a hotel, thank you."
"Nonsense. You can't go alone to a hotel."
"It wouldn't be proper for Miss MacDonald of Dhrum."
"Now you talk like Grandma!"
"I talk common sense. I'll lend you no money to spend in a hotel."
"Then take me to Mrs. West," the girl said, as she might have said, "Take me to the scaffold."
Somerled laughed with amusement and triumph. He was astonishingly interested in his adventure, astonishingly pleased at the prospect of continuing it. Surely this girl was unique! He believed in comparatively few things, but he believed in her: for not to do so would have been indeed ungrateful, as she was ready to prove her implicit belief in him.
"A daughter of Mrs. Bal!" he said to himself as he led Mrs. Bal's daughter to his motor-car.
Poor Barrie would have believed in almost any man who owned a motor.
Aline West and her brother, Basil Norman, were walking slowly up and down the garden path in front of the old-fashioned manor farmhouse lent to them for ten days by an admiring friend. They were waiting for Somerled, who had expressed a desire not to be met at the station; and listening for the teuf-teuf of motors along the distant road prevented Mrs. West from attending to her brother's suggestions. He had had an inspiration for the new novel they were planning together, and was explaining it eagerly, for Basil was a born story-teller. Only, he had never found time for story-telling until lately. He was tremendously happy in his new way of life, although only a terrible illness which had closed others paths of success had opened this door for him. It did not matter in the least that Aline got the credit. Not only was he glad that she should have praise, but he was convinced that it ought to be hers. If she had not thought of asking him to try his hand at helping her four years ago, when the incentive to live seemed gone, he might have been driven to put himself out of the way. It was to her, therefore, that he owed everything; and though success as an author had never come to Aline until after the first book they wrote together, that, to Basil Norman's mind, was no more than a coincidence, and he had never ceased to feel that she was generous in letting his name appear with hers on their title pages.
"I wonder if anything can have happened to him!" Aline murmured.
"Which, Dick or Claud?" her brother asked, puzzled. Dick was to be their hero, Claud the villain. Basil had been engaged in outlining the two characters for his sister's approval.
"No. Ian Somerled," she explained almost crossly, though her voice was sweet, because it was never otherwise than sweet. "Either the train's late or——"
"I'd have met him with pleasure," Basil reminded her.
"It would be fatal to do anything he didn't wish," she answered. "He's a man who knows exactly what he wants, and hates to have people go against his directions in the smallest things."
Norman looked at her rather anxiously through the soft summer darkness that was hardly darkness. She was walking beside him with her hands clasped behind her back and her head bent. He thought her extremely pretty, and wondered if Somerled thought so too. But he wished that she did not care quite so much what Somerled thought. And he was not sure whether she were right about what Somerled liked.
"I wonder if we understand Somerled?" he asked, as if he were questioning himself aloud. "After all, we don't know him very well."
"I do," Aline said. "I know him like a book. He's bored to death with everything nearly. Only I—we—haven't bored him yet. And we must take care not to."
"You could never bore anybody," Basil assured her loyally. "But—I wish you'd tell me something honestly, old girl."
"Not if you call me that!" She laughed a little. "It wouldn't matter if I were twenty-five instead of—never mind! I don't want people to think, when they hear you, 'Many a true word spoken in jest.'"
"Somerled's older than you are, anyhow," Basil consoled her.
"I should think so—ages! Don't forget, dear, I'm only just thirty. I don't look more, do I—truly?"
"Not a day over twenty-eight."
She was disappointed that he did not say less. She had been twenty-nine for years, and had just begun, for a change, to state frankly that she was thirty. She had never been able to forgive Basil for being younger than she, but she could trust him not to advertise his advantage. He really was a dear! She hated herself for being jealous of him sometimes. There were things he could do, there were thoughts that came to him as easily as homing birds, which were with her only a pretence: but she pretended eagerly, sincerely, even with prayer. She really yearned to be at heart all that she tried to make Somerled and other people believe her to be. And if she tried hard to be genuine all through, surely in time——
"What I want you to tell me is," Basil was going on, "are you in l—how much do you really care about this man?"
"'This man?'" she repeated. "How serious that sounds; like 'Do you take this man for better, for worse?' Well, I confess that I should, if he asked me."
"Then you must be in love," her brother concluded. "Because you don't need his money. We make as many thousands as we used to make hundreds; and it's all yours, really, or ought to be."
She was ashamed of not contradicting him, yet she did not contradict. She could not bear to put in words what in her heart she knew to be the truth: that their success was due to Basil, the dreamer of dreams; that her little smartnesses and pretty trivialities could never have carried them to the place where they now stood together. The worst part of her wanted Basil to think, wanted every one to think, that she was the important partner, that she was actually all in the partnership. And it was too miserably easy to produce this impression. Basil was so unassuming, thought so poorly of himself, realized so little how she leaned upon him in their work, admired her so loyally!
"Ian Somerled is more of a man than any other man I ever met," she said. "I like him for his strength and for his indifference. Everything about him appeals to me—even his money; for making it in the way he did was one expression of his power. Just because they say he'll never marry, I want——"
"I can understand how a woman may feel about him," Basil said gently, when she suddenly broke off.
"I thought I was perfectly happy the day he asked us to tour Scotland with him in his car; and when he promised to spend a few days with us here, after he'd got through his business in London," Aline went on, "it was like honey to hear him say that he didn't want to come if any one else was to be here. He'd enjoy it only with you and me alone. But ever since I saw him I've been worrying until I'm quite wretched."
"Worrying about what?"
"Whether he suspects anything."
"Why, what is there to suspect?"
"Then you don't? I'm glad, for you're both men. If you don't suspect, why should he?"
"You'll have to tell me what you're driving at. I shan't have an easy minute till you do—and that means I can't write. You know I won't give you away."
"A woman wouldn't need telling. That's why I like men! You never guessed, then, that I've been doing it all? I was the power behind the throne. I made him invite us, and——"
"The deuce you did! Why, I heard him ask you. It was on board ship, and——"
"And before he asked, unless you were deaf, you heard me say I couldn't work up any enthusiasm about the next book we'd promised our publisher to write because we'd sold our last car and hadn't time to make up our minds about a new one, and we had no friends to give us good 'tips' about the country. It was then he asked me what country we wanted to write about, and I said Scotland."
"Well, yes, I suppose I heard you say all that, now you remind me of it. But it wasn't hinting, because you didn't know he was going to Scotland for his rest cure."
"Oh, yes, I did. I read it in the New York Sun before we sailed. And when I said we'd accept his invitation if he'd accept ours, Mrs. Keeling hadn't offered me this house."
"You said she had."
"I was sure she would, because she told me I had only to ask. She was dying to lend it. She wanted to be able to tell everybody that Aline West and Basil Norman lived in her house for a fortnight in August. It's a great feather in her cap; and Ian Somerled coming to visit us here is something she'll never get over as long as she lives. I marconied her an hour after he'd said that he would come to us after London, and we'd begin our motor tour from Carlisle. 'Twas only taking Time by the forelock to tell him we had been invited. It was bad luck poor Mrs. Keeling being ill when she got my wire, and she really was a trump to turn out and go to a nursing home."
"Good heavens, is that what she did? I didn't know——"
"Of course not. But you needn't mind so dreadfully. She's much more comfortable in the nursing home with the best attention than in her own. And, as a reward, we'll dedicate the book to her."
Aline said this as a queen might have suggested lending her crown to a loyal servitor. Basil laughed, rather uncomfortably, and his sister looked up hastily into his face, to see if he were making fun of her. Just then they were drawing near the open windows of the drawing-room, and the lamplight shone out so brightly through the old-fashioned embroidered lace curtains that she could see his profile. Hers too was clearly outlined as she lifted her chin anxiously.
The brother and sister were both good to look at, in ways so different that the two made a striking contrast. Aline knew that in appearance they were a romantic pair of travelling companions. Every one stared at them when they were together, for he was very tall and dark, more like an Italian or a Spaniard than an Englishman, and she was gracefully slender and fair, dressing with a subtle appreciation of herself and all her points. Aline West's and Basil Norman's photographs, taken together or apart, for newspapers and magazines, were extremely effective, and were considered by publishers to help the sale of their books. Norman might have sat for Titian's Portrait of a Gentleman: and there were those who thought Mrs. West not unlike Lady Hamilton. Since the first expression of this opinion in print, she had changed the fashion of her hair, and at fancy-dress balls, of which she was fond, she generally appeared as the beautiful Emma. Certainly the cast of her features and the cutting of her lips faintly recalled those of Romney's ideal; but Mrs. West's pretty pale face had only two expressions: the one when she smiled—always the same delicate curving of the lips which lit no beam in the deep-set forget-me-not eyes; the one when she was grave and wistfully intellectual. She had a beautiful round white throat which she never hid with a high collar. Her hair was of that sun-in-a-mist gold that eventually fades almost imperceptibly into gray—if left to itself. But in Aline's case it was improbable that it would be left to itself. Every morning when dressing she examined it anxiously, even fearfully, to see whether it was becoming thinner or losing its misty glints of gold. Yet she knew that her fears were likely to advance the day she dreaded, and tried to shut them out of her mind.
"Why do you laugh?" she inquired almost irritably, for she was secretly afraid always of missing something that was seen by others to be amusing. She talked constantly of a sense of humour, pitying those not blessed with it, but there were moments when she wondered bleakly if she had it herself. "Have I said anything funny?"
"Only you seem so sure that the dedication will be a panacea for every wound."
"So it will be for Mrs. Keeling."
"I thought you had the idea of dedicating it to Somerled, as he'll be taking us through Scotland in his car."
"I had. But I feel now it would be a mistake. He couldn't refuse, and one wouldn't be sure he was pleased. He's so horribly important, you know. I don't mean in his own eyes, but in the eyes of the world; so nothing we could do for him would really confer an honour. And the reason he's cynical and bored is because people have fussed over him so sickeningly, more and more every year, since he began to rise to what he is."
"Yet I don't think he's conceited."
"Not in the ordinary way. But he can't help knowing that he's some one in particular. He began to like us because we didn't fuss over him, or seem to go out of our way to please him. That's where I've been clever; for oh, Basil, I'd do anything short of disfiguring myself to win him."
"My poor girl!" Norman exclaimed.
She caught him up hastily. "Why do you call me 'poor?' Do you think I shan't succeed? Do you think he'll never care?"
"You're a far better judge than I am," her brother answered evasively. "Women feel such things. We——"
"You feel things, too. You know you do, Basil."
"In an abstract way—not when they're just in front of my eyes."
"He has told me a lot about himself, anyhow." Aline took up a new line of argument, out of her own thoughts. "That's a good sign. He is so reserved with almost everybody—and he was even with me till our last evening on shipboard. I was telling him about Jim dying in India and leaving me alone there, almost a girl; and how there was no money; and how I took up writing and made a success. Then from that we drifted into talk about success in general; and he told me his whole story—much more than I'd ever heard from gossip, and a good deal of it quite different. I took it as the greatest compliment that he should open his heart to me—and a splendid sign."
"Yes, I suppose it was both," Norman agreed; and Aline had retired too far within the rose-bower of happy memories to catch a suggestion of doubt in his voice.
"I read once in a newspaper that he'd been a bootblack in Glasgow before he emigrated," Mrs. West said, as they turned away from the house again in their walk, and set their faces toward the distant gate. "It wasn't true. His father was a crofter on a little island somewhere near Skye. I think it's called Dhrum. I never heard of it before; and he had to excuse my ignorance, because I'm Canadian! It seems that a branch of the MacDonald family own the whole place and are great people there—lords of the isle. His name was MacDonald too, though his family were only peasants—clan connections, or whatever they call that sort of thing. I don't understand a bit, and I didn't like asking him to explain. It was too delicate a subject, though he appeared to be rather proud of his origin. Scotch peasants are apparently quite different from other peasants. You'll have to study up the differences and make lots of notes for the book. I'm no good at anything with dialect, or character sort of parts. You wouldn't think now, though, that Ian Somerled had ever been a peasant would you? He talked a lot about his father and mother—evidently he adored them. He said they'd be miracles anywhere out of Scotland, but there were many like them there. According to him there was nothing they hadn't read or couldn't quote by the yard, from Burns and Scott back to Shakespeare. That was the way he was brought up, and instead of wanting him to go on crofting like themselves, they were enchanted because he drew pictures on their unpainted doors and their whitewashed walls. They saved all their pennies to have him educated as an artist, and encouraged him—quite different from peasant parents in books. One day the 'meenister' called, and saw the boy's pictures. He thought them something out of the ordinary—pictures of castles and cathedrals they were, with people going in and coming out, and portraits of friends, and historical characters. After that he took a great interest in Ian, and taught him Latin and the few other things his wonderful parents didn't happen to know. When Ian was about thirteen or fourteen, the 'meenister' tried to get help for the little MacDonald from the great MacDonald, a disagreeable, cranky old man with one daughter. They thought they owned the whole world instead of one tiny island, and the man wouldn't do anything for the child. He simply poured contempt on 'clan ties.'"
"That doesn't sound like the great folk of Scotland," said Basil, who for weeks had been reading little else but Scottish history, Scottish fiction, and Scottish poetry, in order to get himself in the right frame of mind for writing "the book." "I haven't come across a single instance of their being purse-proud or snobbish."
"These weren't purse-proud, because their purses had nothing in them to be proud of," Aline explained. "Their branch of the MacDonalds had lost its money and its love of Scotland. Old Duncan MacDonald was the uncle of the last lord of Dhrum, who had to go away from his island for good and let his castle to 'aliens'—English people. When the nephew died later, Duncan inherited, but never lived at Dhrum. He only came there once in a while to visit the tenants who'd hired the castle from him, if they happened to be people he knew, and would 'do' him well. He and his daughter were mostly in London, where they had a flat, and prided themselves on knowing no Gaelic. They took pains to show that they considered the crofter's son a common brat, and resented the meenister's' expecting them to do anything for his future, just because his name happened to be MacDonald, and he lived in a hut on a remote point of their island. Ian didn't lose courage, though; and soon after the great snub he contrived to work his way somehow to Edinburgh. He wouldn't take the money his father and mother had saved up for him, because they were old and had been ill, and needed it themselves. But he did all kinds of queer jobs, and at last walked into the studio of a celebrated artist, saying he wanted to pay for some lessons. At first the man only laughed, but when he saw Ian's drawings, he was interested at once. He gave him lessons for nothing, and boasted of his protege to other artists. It seems that a talent for both portraiture and architecture is very rare. When Ian was sixteen he won a big prize for the design of an important building which a lot of prominent architects had been trying for. Presently it came out that he was only a boy, a boy who could do wonderful portraits, too, and everybody began taking notice of him and writing enthusiastic praise in the papers. Some interviewer falsely reported that he'd called himself a cousin of the MacDonald of Dhrum, and disagreeable Duncan denied the relationship indignantly. He spoke to some one of Ian's father, who had just then died, as 'an ignorant old hay-cutter,' and the speech was repeated far and wide. You can imagine Ian Somerled forgetting an insult to his adored father! He dropped the name of MacDonald from that day, calling himself Somerled; and as he was all alone in the world—his mother was dead, too, and had never seen his success—he resolved to make a reputation in another country. Of course that was very young of him. He sees that now. He crossed to New York in the steerage, and vowed he'd never set foot in Scotland again, or take back his name of MacDonald, until old Duncan not only openly claimed him as a cousin, but begged him as a personal favour to return to Scotland."
"That must have seemed like sentencing himself to perpetual banishment," said Basil.
"I don't know. He appears to have had a kind of prophetic faith in his own powers of success. And he was right in every way. Duncan began to grovel years ago."
In talking of Somerled, Aline had forgotten to listen for sounds of his approach. She was interested in the story she was telling—more interested than she was usually in the development of her own plots. But luckily Basil saw to the plot-making nowadays, and she hadn't to worry. "It's funny," she went on, "that a man who laughs at romance should be one of the most romantic figures in the world. If you and I wrote up his story, and took him for the hero, all the critics would say 'how impossible!' But critics will never believe that anything highly romantic or sensational can happen really. I don't know what their own lives must be like—or what they can think of the incidents they must see every day in the newspapers! Somerled says the only romantic thing he ever did was to annex the name of Somerled: but almost every phase of his life would make a story. Take his success in America, for instance. He wasn't eighteen when he landed as an immigrant, with nothing in his pocket except what was left of the architectural prize. Most of that money had gone in giving his father a few last comforts, and putting up some wonderful, extravagant sort of monuments for both his parents, which Ian designed himself. But he hadn't been two months in New York when he won a still bigger prize, which came just as he was on the point of starving! A handful of oatmeal and an apple a day I should call starvation, but he says it was grand for his health. In six years, at twenty-four, he was not only the greatest portrait-painter in America, but one of the most successful architects, an extraordinary combination which has made him unique in modern times. And before he was twenty-eight came that big 'coup' of his, which he calls a 'mere accident that might have happened to any fool'—the buying of a site for a new town in Nevada, where he meant to build up a little city of beautiful houses, and finding a silver mine. Of course, it wasn't an 'accident.' It was the spirit of prophecy in him which has always carried him on to success—that, and his grit and daring and enterprise and general cleverness. Oh, Basil, if you could have heard him telling me these things that last night on the Olympic—leaning back in his deck-chair, smoking cigarette after cigarette (I was smoking too. I hate it; but I think he likes a woman to smoke and be a man's pal), the moonlight shining on his face, showing his eyes half shut, and talking in his quietest way, as if he were dreaming it all over again, or speaking to himself! I hardly breathed, till he broke off suddenly and laughed in quite a shy sort of way, ashamed of being 'egotistical,' though he hadn't praised himself at all. The flowery things I've said are mine. He even apologized! I felt I'd never had so great a compliment in my life. It seemed too good to be true that such a man should have opened his heart to me. But when his invitation for Scotland came, it—it set the seal of reality on the rest. Do you know, I can't help believing he made more than he need of his business in London; that the real truth was he wanted to stay there without us, and see how much he missed me. Now he's coming to accept our invitation, a day sooner than he meant to at first. Something tells me the reason why. I shall know for sure to-night, when I see him. He didn't want us to meet him at the station. But that was perhaps because—I couldn't have gone very well without you, and maybe——"