“Ye’ll be goin’ to Glenbogie House, I’m thinkin’?” he said moodily.
The consul said that he was.
“I kenned it. Ye’ll no be gettin’ any machine to tak’ ye there. They’ll be sending a carriage for ye—if ye’re expected.” He glanced half doubtfully at the consul as if he was not quite so sure of it.
But the consul believed he was expected, and felt relieved at the certain prospect of a conveyance. The porter meanwhile surveyed him moodily.
“Ye’ll be seein’ Mistress MacSpadden there!”
The consul was surprised into a little over-consciousness. Mrs. MacSpadden was a vivacious acquaintance at St. Kentigern, whom he certainly—and not without some satisfaction—expected to meet at Glenbogie House. He raised his eyes inquiringly to the porter’s.
“Ye’ll no be rememberin’ me. I had a machine in St. Kentigern and drove ye to MacSpadden’s ferry often. Far, far too often! She’s a strange flagrantitious creature; her husband’s but a puir fule, I’m thinkin’, and ye did yersel’ nae guid gaunin’ there.”
It was a besetting weakness of the consul’s that his sense of the ludicrous was too often reached before his more serious perceptions. The absurd combination of the bleak, inhospitable desolation before him, and the sepulchral complacency of his self-elected monitor, quite upset his gravity.
“Ay, ye’ll be laughin’ the noo,” returned the porter with gloomy significance.
The consul wiped his eyes. “Still,” he said demurely, “I trust you won’t object to my giving you sixpence to carry my box to the carriage when it comes, and let the morality of this transaction devolve entirely upon me. Unless,” he continued, even more gravely, as a spick and span brougham, drawn by two thoroughbreds, dashed out of the mist up to the platform, “unless you prefer to state the case to those two gentlemen”—pointing to the smart coachman and footman on the box—“and take their opinion as to the propriety of my proceeding any further. It seems to me that their consciences ought to be consulted as well as yours. I’m only a stranger here, and am willing to do anything to conform to the local custom.”
“It’s a saxpence ye’ll be payin’ anyway,” said the porter, grimly shouldering the trunk, “but I’ll be no takin’ any other mon’s opinion on matters of my am dooty and conscience.”
“Ah,” said the consul gravely, “then you’ll perhaps be allowing me the same privilege.”
The porter’s face relaxed, and a gleam of approval—purely intellectual, however,—came into his eyes.
“Ye were always a smooth deevel wi’ your tongue, Mr. Consul,” he said, shouldering the box and walking off to the carriage.
Nevertheless, as soon as he was fairly seated and rattling away from the station, the consul had a flashing conviction that he had not only been grievously insulted but also that he had allowed the wife of an acquaintance to be spoken of disrespectfully in his presence. And he had done nothing! Yes—it was like him!—he had laughed at the absurdity of the impertinence without resenting it! Another man would have slapped the porter’s face! For an instant he hung out of the carriage window, intent upon ordering the coachman to drive back to the station, but the reflection—again a ludicrous one—that he would now be only bringing witnesses to a scene which might provoke a scandal more invidious to his acquaintance, checked him in time. But his spirits, momentarily diverted by the porter’s effrontery, sunk to a lower ebb than before.
The clattering of his horses’ hoofs echoed back from the rocky walls that occasionally hemmed in the road was not enlivening, but was less depressing than the recurring monotony of the open. The scenery did not suggest wildness to his alien eyes so much as it affected him with a vague sense of scorbutic impoverishment. It was not the loneliness of unfrequented nature, for there was a well-kept carriage road traversing its dreariness; and even when the hillside was clothed with scanty verdure, there were “outcrops” of smooth glistening weather-worn rocks showing like bare brown knees under the all too imperfectly kilted slopes. And at a little distance, lifting above a black drift of firs, were the square rigid sky lines of Glenbogie House, standing starkly against the cold, lingering northern twilight. As the vehicle turned, and rolled between two square stone gate-posts, the long avenue before him, though as well kept as the road, was but a slight improvement upon the outer sterility, and the dark iron-gray rectangular mansion beyond, guiltless of external decoration, even to the outlines of its small lustreless windows, opposed the grim inhospitable prospect with an equally grim inhospitable front. There were a few moments more of rapid driving, a swift swishing over soft gravel, the opening of a heavy door into a narrow vestibule, and then—a sudden sense of exquisitely diffused light and warmth from an arched and galleried central hall, the sounds of light laughter and subdued voices half lost in the airy space between the lofty pictured walls; the luxury of color in trophies, armor, and hangings; one or two careless groups before the recessed hearth or at the centre table, and the halted figure of a pretty woman on the broad, slow staircase. The contrast was sharp, ironical, and bewildering.
So much so that the consul, when he had followed the servant to his room, was impelled to draw aside the heavy window-curtains and look out again upon the bleak prospect it had half obliterated. The wing in which he was placed overhung a dark ravine or gully choked with shrubs and brambles that grew in a new luxuriance. As he gazed a large black bird floated upwards slowly from its depths, circled around the house with a few quick strokes of its wing, and then sped away—a black bolt—in one straight undeviating line towards the paling north. He still gazed into the abyss—half expecting another, even fancying he heard the occasional stir and flutter of obscure life below, and the melancholy call of nightfowl. A long-forgotten fragment of old English verse began to haunt him—
Hark! the raven flaps hys wing|
In the briered dell belowe,
Hark! the dethe owl loude doth synge
To the night maers as thaie goe.
“Now, what put that stuff in my head?” he said as he turned impatiently from the window. “And why does this house, with all its interior luxury, hypocritically oppose such a forbidding front to its neighbors?” Then it occurred to him that perhaps the architect instinctively felt that a more opulent and elaborate exterior would only bring the poverty of surrounding nature into greater relief. But he was not in the habit of troubling himself with abstruse problems. A nearer recollection of the pretty frock he had seen on the staircase—in whose wearer he had just recognized his vivacious friend—turned his thoughts to her. He remembered how at their first meeting he had been interested in her bright audacity, unconventionality, and high spirits, which did not, however, amuse him as greatly as his later suspicion that she was playing a self-elected role, often with difficulty, opposition, and feverishness, rather than spontaneity. He remembered how he had watched her in the obtrusive assumption of a new fashion, in some reckless departure from an old one, or in some ostentatious disregard of certain hard and set rules of St. Kentigern; but that it never seemed to him that she was the happier for it. He even fancied that her mirth at such times had an undue nervousness; that her pluck—which was undoubted—had something of the defiance of despair, and that her persistence often had the grimness of duty rather than the thoughtlessness of pure amusement. What was she trying to do?—what was she trying to undo or forget? Her married life was apparently happy and even congenial. Her young husband was clever, complaisant, yet honestly devoted to her, even to the extension of a certain camaraderie to her admirers and a chivalrous protection by half-participation in her maddest freaks. Nor could he honestly say that her attitude towards his own sex—although marked by a freedom that often reached the verge of indiscretion—conveyed the least suggestion of passion or sentiment. The consul, more perceptive than analytical, found her a puzzle—who was, perhaps, the least mystifying to others who were content to sum up her eccentricities under the single vague epithet, “fast.” Most women disliked her: she had a few associates among them, but no confidante, and even these were so unlike her, again, as to puzzle him still more. And yet he believed himself strictly impartial.
He walked to the window again, and looked down upon the ravine from which the darkness now seemed to be slowly welling up and obliterating the landscape, and then, taking a book from his valise, settled himself in the easy-chair by the fire. He was in no hurry to join the party below, whom he had duly recognized and greeted as he passed through. They or their prototypes were familiar friends. There was the recently created baronet, whose “bloody hand” had apparently wiped out the stains of his earlier Radicalism, and whose former provincial self-righteousness had been supplanted by an equally provincial skepticism; there was his wife, who through all the difficulties of her changed position had kept the stalwart virtues of the Scotch bourgeoisie, and was—“decent”; there were the two native lairds that reminded him of “parts of speech,” one being distinctly alluded to as a definite article, and the other being “of” something, and apparently governed always by that possessive case. There were two or three “workers”—men of power and ability in their several vocations; indeed, there was the general over-proportion of intellect, characteristic of such Scotch gatherings, and often in excess of minor social qualities. There was the usual foreigner, with Latin quickness, eagerness, and misapprehending adaptability. And there was the solitary Englishman—perhaps less generously equipped than the others—whom everybody differed from, ridiculed, and then looked up to and imitated. There were the half-dozen smartly frocked women, who, far from being the females of the foregoing species, were quite indistinctive, with the single exception of an American wife, who was infinitely more Scotch than her Scotch husband.
Suddenly he became aware of a faint rustling at his door, and what seemed to be a slight tap on the panel. He rose and opened it—the long passage was dark and apparently empty, but he fancied he could detect the quick swish of a skirt in the distance. As he re-entered his room, his eye fell for the first time on a rose whose stalk was thrust through the keyhole of his door. The consul smiled at this amiable solution of a mystery. It was undoubtedly the playful mischievousness of the vivacious MacSpadden. He placed it in water—intending to wear it in his coat at dinner as a gentle recognition of the fair donor’s courtesy.
Night had thickened suddenly as from a passing cloud. He lit the two candles on his dressing-table, gave a glance into the now scarcely distinguishable abyss below his window, as he drew the curtains, and by the more diffused light for the first time surveyed his room critically. It was a larger apartment than that usually set aside for bachelors; the heavy four-poster had a conjugal reserve about it, and a tall cheval glass and certain minor details of the furniture suggested that it had been used for a married couple. He knew that the guest-rooms in country houses, as in hotels, carried no suggestion or flavor of the last tenant, and therefore lacked color and originality, and he was consequently surprised to find himself impressed with some distinctly novel atmosphere. He was puzzling himself to discover what it might be, when he again became aware of cautious footsteps apparently halting outside his door. This time he was prepared. With a half smile he stepped softly to the door and opened it suddenly. To his intense surprise he was face to face with a man.
But his discomfiture was as nothing compared to that of the stranger—whom he at once recognized as one of his fellow-guests—the youthful Laird of Whistlecrankie. The young fellow’s healthy color at once paled, then flushed a deep crimson, and a forced smile stiffened his mouth.
“I—beg your par-r-rdon,” he said with a nervous brusqueness that brought out his accent. “I couldna find ma room. It’ll be changed, and I—”
“Perhaps I have got it,” interrupted the consul smilingly. “I’ve only just come, and they’ve put me in here.”
“Nae! Nae!” said the young man hurriedly, “it’s no’ thiss. That is, it’s no’ mine noo.”
“Won’t you come in?” suggested the consul politely, holding open the door.
The young man entered the room with the quick strides but the mechanical purposelessness of embarrassment. Then he stiffened and stood erect. Yet in spite of all this he was strikingly picturesque and unconventional in his Highland dress, worn with the freedom of long custom and a certain lithe, barbaric grace. As the consul continued to gaze at him encouragingly, the quick resentful pride of a shy man suddenly mantled his high cheekbones, and with an abrupt “I’ll not deesturb ye longer,” he strode out of the room.
The consul watched the easy swing of his figure down the passage, and then closed the door. “Delightful creature,” he said musingly, “and not so very unlike an Apache chief either! But what was he doing outside my door? And was it he who left that rose—not as a delicate Highland attention to an utter stranger, but”—the consul’s mouth suddenly expanded—“to some fair previous occupant? Or was it really his room—he looked as if he were lying—and”—here the consul’s mouth expanded even more wickedly—“and Mrs. MacSpadden had put the flower there for him.” This implied snub to his vanity was, however, more than compensated by his wicked anticipation of the pretty perplexity of his fair friend when he should appear at dinner with the flower in his own buttonhole. It would serve her right, the arrant flirt! But here he was interrupted by the entrance of a tall housemaid with his hot water.
“I am afraid I’ve dispossessed Mr.—Mr.—Kilcraithie rather prematurely,” said the consul lightly.
To his infinite surprise the girl answered with grim decision, “Nane too soon.”
The consul stared. “I mean,” he explained, “that I found him hesitating here in the passage, looking for his room.”
“Ay, he’s always hoaverin’ and glowerin’ in the passages—but it’s no’ for his room! And it’s a deesgrace to decent Christian folk his carryin’ on wi’ married weemen—mebbee they’re nae better than he!”
“That will do,” said the consul curtly. He had no desire to encourage a repetition of the railway porter’s freedom.
“Ye’ll no fash yoursel’ aboot him,” continued the girl, without heeding the rebuff. “It’s no’ the meestreess’ wish that he’s keepit here in the wing reserved for married folk, and she’s no’ sorry for the excuse to pit ye in his place. Ye’ll be married yoursel’, I’m hearin’. But, I ken ye’s nae mair to be lippened tae for that.”
This was too much for the consul’s gravity. “I’m afraid,” he said with diplomatic gayety, “that although I am married, as I haven’t my wife with me, I’ve no right to this superior accommodation and comfort. But you can assure your mistress that I’ll try to deserve them.”
“Ay,” said the girl, but with no great confidence in her voice as she grimly quitted the room.
“When our foot’s upon our native heath, whether our name’s Macgregor or Kilcraithie, it would seem that we must tread warily,” mused the consul as he began to dress. “But I’m glad she didn’t see that rose, or my reputation would have been ruined.” Here another knock at the door arrested him. He opened it impatiently to a tall gillie, who instantly strode into the room. There was such another suggestion of Kilcraithie in the man and his manner that the consul instantly divined that he was Kilcraithie’s servant.
“I’ll be takin’ some bit things that yon Whistlecrankie left,” said the gillie gravely, with a stolid glance around the room.
“Certainly,” said the consul; “help yourself.” He continued his dressing as the man began to rummage in the empty drawers. The consul had his back towards him, but, looking in the glass of the dressing-table, he saw that the gillie was stealthily watching him. Suddenly he passed before the mantelpiece and quickly slipped the rose from its glass into his hand.
“I’ll trouble you to put that back,” said the consul quietly, without turning round. The gillie slid a quick glance towards the door, but the consul was before him. “I don’t think that was left by your master,” he said in an ostentatiously calm voice, for he was conscious of an absurd and inexplicable tumult in his blood, “and perhaps you’d better put it back.”
The man looked at the flower with an attention that might have been merely ostentatious, and replaced it in the glass.
“A thocht it was hiss.”
“And I think it isn’t,” said the consul, opening the door.
Yet when the man had passed out he was by no means certain that the flower was not Kilcraithie’s. He was even conscious that if the young Laird had approached him with a reasonable explanation or appeal he would have yielded it up. Yet here he was—looking angrily pale in the glass, his eyes darker than they should be, and with an unmistakable instinct to do battle for this idiotic gage! Was there some morbid disturbance in the air that was affecting him as it had Kilcraithie? He tried to laugh, but catching sight of its sardonic reflection in the glass became grave again. He wondered if the gillie had been really looking for anything his master had left—he had certainly taken nothing. He opened one or two of the drawers, and found only a woman’s tortoiseshell hairpin—overlooked by the footman when he had emptied them for the consul’s clothes. It had been probably forgotten by some fair and previous tenant to Kilcraithie. The consul looked at his watch—it was time to go down. He grimly pinned the fateful flower in his buttonhole, and half-defiantly descended to the drawing-room.
Here, however, he was inclined to relax when, from a group of pretty women, the bright gray eyes of Mrs. MacSpadden caught his, were suddenly diverted to the lapel of his coat, and then leaped up to his again with a sparkle of mischief. But the guests were already pairing off in dinner couples, and as they passed out of the room, he saw that she was on the arm of Kilcraithie. Yet, as she passed him, she audaciously turned her head, and in a mischievous affectation of jealous reproach, murmured:—
At dinner she was too far removed for any conversation with him, although from his seat by his hostess he could plainly see her saucy profile midway up the table. But, to his surprise, her companion, Kilcraithie, did not seem to be responding to her gayety. By turns abstracted and feverish, his glances occasionally wandered towards the end of the table where the consul was sitting. For a few moments he believed that the affair of the flower, combined, perhaps, with the overhearing of Mrs. MacSpadden’s mischievous sentence, rankled in the Laird’s barbaric soul. But he became presently aware that Kilcraithie’s eyes eventually rested upon a quiet-looking blonde near the hostess. Yet the lady not only did not seem to be aware of it, but her face was more often turned towards the consul, and their eyes had once or twice met. He had been struck by the fact that they were half-veiled but singularly unimpassioned eyes, with a certain expression of cold wonderment and criticism quite inconsistent with their veiling. Nor was he surprised when, after a preliminary whispering over the plates, his hostess presented him. The lady was the young wife of the middle-aged dignitary who, seated further down the table, opposite Mrs. MacSpadden, was apparently enjoying that lady’s wildest levities. The consul bowed, the lady leaned a little forward.
“We were saying what a lovely rose you had.”
The consul’s inward response was “Hang that flower!” His outward expression was the modest query:—
“Is it so peculiar?”
“No; but it’s very pretty. Would you allow me to see it?”
Disengaging the flower from his buttonhole he handed it to her. Oddly enough, it seemed to him that half the table was watching and listening to them. Suddenly the lady uttered a little cry. “Dear me! it’s full of thorns; of course you picked and arranged it yourself, for any lady would have wrapped something around the stalk!”
But here there was a burlesque outcry and a good-humored protest from the gentlemen around her against this manifestly leading question. “It’s no fair! Ye’ll not answer her—for the dignity of our sex.” Yet in the midst of it, it suddenly occurred to the consul that there had been a slip of paper wrapped around it, which had come off and remained in the keyhole. The blue eyes of the lady were meanwhile sounding his, but he only smiled and said:—
“Then it seems it is peculiar?”
When the conversation became more general he had time to observe other features of the lady than her placid eyes. Her light hair was very long, and grew low down the base of her neck. Her mouth was firm, the upper lip slightly compressed in a thin red line, but the lower one, although equally precise at the corners, became fuller in the centre and turned over like a scarlet leaf, or, as it struck him suddenly, like the tell-tale drop of blood on the mouth of a vampire. Yet she was very composed, practical, and decorous, and as the talk grew more animated—and in the vicinity of Mrs. MacSpadden, more audacious—she kept a smiling reserve of expression,—which did not, however, prevent her from following that lively lady, whom she evidently knew, with a kind of encouraging attention.
“Kate is in full fling to-night,” she said to the hostess. Lady Macquoich smiled ambiguously—so ambiguously that the consul thought it necessary to interfere for his friend. “She seems to say what most of us think, but I am afraid very few of us could voice as innocently,” he smilingly suggested.
“She is a great friend of yours,” returned the lady, looking at him through her half-veiled lids. “She has made us quite envy her.”
“And I am afraid made it impossible for me to either sufficiently thank her or justify her taste,” he said quietly. Yet he was vexed at an unaccountable resentment which had taken possession of him—who but a few hours before had only laughed at the porter’s criticism.
After the ladies had risen, the consul with an instinct of sympathy was moving up towards “Jock” MacSpadden, who sat nearer the host, when he was stopped midway of the table by the dignitary who had sat opposite to Mrs. MacSpadden. “Your frien’ is maist amusing wi’ her audacious tongue—ay, and her audacious ways,” he said with large official patronage; “and we’ve enjoyed her here immensely, but I hae mae doots if mae Leddy Macquoich taks as kindly to them. You and I—men of the wurrld, I may say—we understand them for a’ their worth; ay!—ma wife too, with whom I observed ye speakin’—is maist tolerant of her, but man! it’s extraordinar’”—he lowered his voice slightly—“that yon husband of hers does na’ check her freedoms with Kilcraithie. I wadna’ say anythin’ was wrong, ye ken, but is he no’ over confident and conceited aboot his wife?”
“I see you don’t know him,” said the consul smilingly, “and I’d be delighted to make you acquainted. Jock,” he continued, raising his voice as he turned towards MacSpadden, “let me introduce you to Sir Alan Deeside, who don’t know you, although he’s a great admirer of your wife;” and unheeding the embarrassed protestations of Sir Alan and the laughing assertions of Jock that they were already acquainted, he moved on beside his host. That hospitable knight, who had been airing his knowledge of London smart society to his English guest with a singular mixture of assertion and obsequiousness, here stopped short. “Ay, sit down, laddie, it was so guid of ye to come, but I’m thinkin’ at your end of the table ye lost the bit fun of Mistress MacSpadden. Eh, but she was unco’ lively to-night. ’Twas all Kilcraithie could do to keep her from proposin’ your health with Hieland honors, and offerin’ to lead off with her ain foot on the table! Ay, and she’d ha’ done it. And that’s a braw rose she’s been givin’ ye—and ye got out of it claverly wi’ Lady Deeside.”
When he left the table with the others to join the ladies, the same unaccountable feeling of mingled shyness and nervous irascibility still kept possession of him. He felt that in his present mood he could not listen to any further criticisms of his friend without betraying some unwonted heat, and as his companions filed into the drawing-room he slipped aside in the hope of recovering his equanimity by a few moments’ reflection in his own room. He glided quickly up the staircase and entered the corridor. The passage that led to his apartment was quite dark, especially before his door, which was in a bay that really ended the passage. He was consequently surprised and somewhat alarmed at seeing a shadowy female figure hovering before it. He instinctively halted; the figure became more distinct from some luminous halo that seemed to encompass it. It struck him that this was only the light of his fire thrown through his open door, and that the figure was probably that of a servant before it, who had been arranging his room. He started forward again, but at the sound of his advancing footsteps the figure and the luminous glow vanished, and he arrived blankly face to face with his own closed door. He looked around the dim bay; it was absolutely vacant. It was equally impossible for any one to have escaped without passing him. There was only his room left. A half-nervous, half-superstitious thrill crept over him as he suddenly grasped the handle of the door and threw it open. The leaping light of his fire revealed its emptiness: no one was there! He lit the candle and peered behind the curtains and furniture and under the bed; the room was as vacant and undisturbed as when he left it.
Had it been a trick of his senses or a bona-fide apparition? He had never heard of a ghost at Glenbogie—the house dated back some fifty years; Sir John Macquoich’s tardy knighthood carried no such impedimenta. He looked down wonderingly on the flower in his buttonhole. Was there something uncanny in that innocent blossom? But here he was struck by another recollection, and examined the keyhole of his door. With the aid of the tortoiseshell hairpin he dislodged the paper he had forgotten. It was only a thin spiral strip, apparently the white outer edge of some newspaper, and it certainly seemed to be of little service as a protection against the thorns of the rose-stalk. He was holding it over the fire, about to drop it into the blaze, when the flame revealed some pencil-marks upon it. Taking it to the candle he read, deeply bitten into the paper by a hard pencil-point: “At half-past one.” There was nothing else—no signature; but the handwriting was not Mrs. MacSpadden’s!
Then whose? Was it that of the mysterious figure whom he had just seen? Had he been selected as the medium of some spiritual communication, and, perhaps, a ghostly visitation later on? Or was he the victim of some clever trick? He had once witnessed such dubious attempts to relieve the monotony of a country house. He again examined the room carefully, but without avail. Well! the mystery or trick would be revealed at half-past one. It was a somewhat inconvenient hour, certainly. He looked down at the baleful gift in his buttonhole, and for a moment felt inclined to toss it in the fire. But this was quickly followed by his former revulsion of resentment and defiance. No! he would wear it, no matter what happened, until its material or spiritual owner came for it. He closed the door and returned to the drawing-room.
Midway of the staircase he heard the droning of pipes. There was dancing in the drawing-room to the music of the gorgeous piper who had marshaled them to dinner. He was not sorry, as he had no inclination to talk, and the one confidence he had anticipated with Mrs. MacSpadden was out of the question now. He had no right to reveal his later discovery. He lingered a few moments in the hall. The buzzing of the piper’s drones gave him that impression of confused and blindly aggressive intoxication which he had often before noticed in this barbaric instrument, and had always seemed to him as the origin of its martial inspiration. From this he was startled by voices and steps in the gallery he had just quitted, but which came from the opposite direction to his room. It was Kilcraithie and Mrs. MacSpadden. As she caught sight of him, he fancied she turned slightly and aggressively pale, with a certain hardening of her mischievous eyes. Nevertheless, she descended the staircase more deliberately than her companion, who brushed past him with an embarrassed self-consciousness, quite in advance of her. She lingered for an instant.
“You are not dancing?” she said.
“Perhaps you are more agreeably employed?”
“At this exact moment, certainly.”
She cast a disdainful glance at him, crossed the hall, and followed Kilcraithie.
“Hang me, if I understand it all!” mused the consul, by no means good-humoredly. “Does she think I have been spying upon her and her noble chieftain? But it’s just as well that I didn’t tell her anything.”
He turned to follow them. In the vestibule he came upon a figure which had halted before a large pier-glass. He recognized M. Delfosse, the French visitor, complacently twisting the peak of his Henri Quatre beard. He would have passed without speaking, but the Frenchman glanced smilingly at the consul and his buttonhole. Again the flower!
“Monsieur is decoré,” he said gallantly.
The consul assented, but added, not so gallantly, that though they were not in France he might still be unworthy of it. The baleful flower had not improved his temper. Nor did the fact that, as he entered the room, he thought the people stared at him—until he saw that their attention was directed to Lady Deeside, who had entered almost behind him. From his hostess, who had offered him a seat beside her, he gathered that M. Delfosse and Kilcraithie had each temporarily occupied his room, but that they had been transferred to the other wing, apart from the married couples and young ladies, because when they came upstairs from the billiard and card room late, they sometimes disturbed the fair occupants. No!—there were no ghosts at Glenbogie. Mysterious footsteps had sometimes been heard in the ladies’ corridor, but—with peculiar significance—she was afraid they could be easily accounted for. Sir Alan, whose room was next to the MacSpaddens’, had been disturbed by them.
He was glad when it was time to escape to the billiard-room and tobacco. For a while he forgot the evening’s adventure, but eventually found himself listening to a discussion—carried on over steaming tumblers of toddy—in regard to certain predispositions of the always debatable sex.
“Ye’ll not always judge by appearances,” said Sir Alan. “Ye’ll mind the story o’ the meenester’s wife of Aiblinnoch. It was thocht that she was ower free wi’ one o’ the parishioners—ay! it was the claish o’ the whole kirk, while none dare tell the meenester hisself—bein’ a bookish, simple, unsuspectin’ creeter. At last one o’ the elders bethocht him of a bit plan of bringing it home to the wife, through the gospel lips of her ain husband! So he intimated to the meenester his suspicions of grievous laxity amang the female flock, and of the necessity of a special sermon on the Seventh Command. The puir man consented—although he dinna ken why and wherefore—and preached a gran’ sermon! Ay, man! it was crammed wi’ denunciation and an emptyin’ o’ the vials o’ wrath! The congregation sat dumb as huddled sheep—when they were no’ starin’ and gowpin’ at the meenester’s wife settin’ bolt upright in her place. And then, when the air was blue wi’ sulphur frae tae pit, the meenester’s wife up rises! Man! Ivry eye was spearin’ her—ivry lug was prickt towards her! And she goes out in the aisle facin’ the meenester, and—”
Sir Alan paused.
“And what?” demanded the eager auditory.
“She pickit up the elder’s wife, sobbin’ and tearin’ her hair in strong hysterics.”
At the end of a relieved pause Sir Alan slowly concluded: “It was said that the elder removed frae Aiblinnoch wi’ his wife, but no’ till he had effected a change of meenesters.”
It was already past midnight, and the party had dropped off one by one, with the exception of Deeside, Macquoich, the young Englishman, and a Scotch laird, who were playing poker—an amusement which he understood they frequently protracted until three in the morning. It was nearly time for him to expect his mysterious visitant. Before he went upstairs he thought he would take a breath of the outer evening air, and throwing a mackintosh over his shoulders, passed out of the garden door of the billiard-room. To his surprise it gave immediately upon the fringe of laurel that hung over the chasm.
It was quite dark; the few far-spread stars gave scarcely any light, and the slight auroral glow towards the north was all that outlined the fringe of the abyss, which might have proved dangerous to any unfamiliar wanderer. A damp breath of sodden leaves came from its depths. Beside him stretched the long dark facade of the wing he inhabited, his own window the only one that showed a faint light. A few paces beyond, a singular structure of rustic wood and glass, combining the peculiarities of a sentry-box, a summer-house, and a shelter, was built against the blank wall of the wing. He imagined the monotonous prospect from its windows of the tufted chasm, the coldly profiled northern hills beyond,—and shivered. A little further on, sunk in the wall like a postern, was a small door that evidently gave easy egress to seekers of this stern retreat. In the still air a faint grating sound like the passage of a foot across gravel came to him as from the distance. He paused, thinking he had been followed by one of the card-players, but saw no one, and the sound was not repeated.
It was past one. He re-entered the billiard-room, passed the unchanged group of card-players, and taking a candlestick from the hall ascended the dark and silent staircase into the corridor. The light of his candle cast a flickering halo around him—but did not penetrate the gloomy distance. He at last halted before his door, gave a scrutinizing glance around the embayed recess, and opened the door half expectantly. But the room was empty as he had left it.
It was a quarter past one. He threw himself on the bed without undressing, and fixed his eyes alternately on the door and his watch. Perhaps the unwonted seriousness of his attitude struck him, but a sudden sense of the preposterousness of the whole situation, of his solemnly ridiculous acceptance of a series of mere coincidences as a foregone conclusion, overcame him, and he laughed. But in the same breath he stopped.
There were footsteps approaching—cautious footsteps—but not at his door! They were in the room—no! in the wall just behind him! They were descending some staircase at the back of his bed—he could hear the regular tap of a light slipper from step to step and the rustle of a skirt seemingly in his very ear. They were becoming less and less distinct—they were gone! He sprang to his feet, but almost at the same instant he was conscious of a sudden chill—that seemed to him as physical as it was mental. The room was slowly suffused with a cool sodden breath and the dank odor of rotten leaves. He looked at the candle—its flame was actually deflecting in this mysterious blast. It seemed to come from a recess for hanging clothes topped by a heavy cornice and curtain. He had examined it before, but he drew the curtain once more aside. The cold current certainly seemed to be more perceptible there. He felt the red-clothed backing of the interior, and his hand suddenly grasped a doorknob. It turned, and the whole structure—cornice and curtains—swung inwards towards him with the door on which it was hung! Behind it was a dark staircase leading from the floor above to some outer door below, whose opening had given ingress to the chill humid current from the ravine. This was the staircase where he had just heard the footsteps—and this was, no doubt, the door through which the mysterious figure had vanished from his room a few hours before!
Taking his candle, he cautiously ascended the stairs until he found himself on the landing of the suites of the married couples and directly opposite to the rooms of the MacSpaddens and Deesides. He was about to descend again when he heard a far-off shout, a scuffling sound on the outer gravel, and the frenzied shaking of the handle of the lower door. He had hardly time to blow out his candle and flatten himself against the wall, when the door was flung open and a woman frantically flew up the staircase. His own door was still open; from within its depths the light of his fire projected a flickering beam across the steps. As she rushed past it the light revealed her face; it needed not the peculiar perfume of her garments as she swept by his concealed figure to make him recognize—Lady Deeside!
Amazed and confounded, he was about to descend, when he heard the lower door again open. But here a sudden instinct bade him pause, turn, and reascend to the upper landing. There he calmly relit his candle, and made his way down to the corridor that overlooked the central hall. The sound of suppressed voices—speaking with the exhausted pauses that come from spent excitement—made him cautious again, and he halted. It was the card party slowly passing from the billiard-room to the hall.
“Ye owe it yoursel’—to your wife—not to pit up with it a day longer,” said the subdued voice of Sir Alan. “Man! ye war in an ace o’ havin’ a braw scandal.”
“Could ye no’ get your wife to speak till her,” responded Macquoich, “to gie her a hint that she’s better awa’ out of this? Lady Deeside has some influence wi’ her.”
The consul ostentatiously dropped the extinguisher from his candlestick. The party looked up quickly. Their faces were still flushed and agitated, but a new restraint seemed to come upon them on seeing him.
“I thought I heard a row outside,” said the consul explanatorily.
They each looked at their host without speaking.
“Oh, ay,” said Macquoich, with simulated heartiness, “a bit fuss between the Kilcraithie and yon Frenchman; but they’re baith goin’ in the mornin’.”
“I thought I heard MacSpadden’s voice,” said the consul quietly.
There was a dead silence. Then Macquoich said hurriedly:—
“Is he no’ in his room—in bed—asleep,—man?”
“I really don’t know; I didn’t inquire,” said the consul with a slight yawn. “Good night!”
He turned, not without hearing them eagerly whispering again, and entered the passage leading to his own room. As he opened the door he was startled to find the subject of his inquiry—Jock MacSpadden—quietly seated in his armchair by his fire.
“Don’t be alarmed, old man; I came up by that staircase and saw the door open, and guessed you’d be returning soon. But it seemed you went round by the corridor,” he said, glancing curiously at the consul’s face. “Did you meet the crowd?”
“Yes, Jock! What does it all mean?”
MacSpadden laughed. “It means that I was just in time to keep Kilbraithie from chucking Delfosse down that ravine; but they both scooted when they saw me. By Jove! I don’t know which was the most frightened.”
“But,” said the consul slowly, “what was it all about, Jock?”
“Some gallantry of that d——d Frenchman, who’s trying to do some woman-stalking up here, and jealousy of Kilcraithie’s, who’s just got enough of his forbears’ blood in him to think nothing of sticking three inches of his dirk in the wame of the man that crosses him. But I say,” continued Jock, leaning easily back in his chair, “You ought to know something of all this. This room, old man, was used as a sort of rendezvous, having two outlets, don’t you see, when they couldn’t get at the summer-house below. By Jove! they both had it in turns—Kilcraithie and the Frenchman—until Lady Macquoich got wind of something, swept them out, and put you in it.”
The consul rose and approached his friend with a grave face. “Jock, I do know something about it—more about it than any one thinks. You and I are old friends. Shall I tell you what I know?”
Jock’s handsome face became a trifle paler, but his frank, clear eyes rested steadily on the consul’s.
“Go on!” he said.
“I know that this flower which I am wearing was the signal for the rendezvous this evening,” said the consul slowly, “and this paper,” taking it from his pocket, “contained the time of the meeting, written in the lady’s own hand. I know who she was, for I saw her face as plainly as I see yours now, by the light of the same fire; it was as pale, but not as frank as yours, old man. That is what I know. But I know also what people think they know, and for that reason I put that paper in your hand. It is yours—your vindication—your revenge, if you choose. Do with it what you like.”
Jock, with unchanged features and undimmed eyes, took the paper from the consul’s hand, without looking at it.
“I may do with it what I like?” he repeated.
He was about to drop it into the fire, but the consul stayed his hand.
“Are you not going to look at the handwriting first?”
There was a moment of silence. Jock raised his eyes with a sudden flash of pride in them and said, “No!”
The friends stood side by side, grasping each other’s hands, as the burning paper leaped up the chimney in a vanishing flame.
“Do you think you have done quite right, Jock, in view of any scandal you may hear?”
“Quite! You see, old man, I know my wife—but I don’t think that Deeside knows his.”