The Mystery of the Sea/Chapter 15
A PECULIAR DINNER-PARTY
We did not stop at Aboyne, but ran on beyond Kincardine O'Neill, and took our second rest close to the Bridge of Potarch where we had tea at the little hotel on the right bank of the river. Then for a while we leaned over the parapet and looked at the water flowing swiftly far below as the river narrows from its pebbly bed to the gorge of rock on which the bridge rests. There is something soothing, perhaps something, hypnotic, in the ceaseless rush of water. It unconsciously takes one's thoughts on and on, till the reality of the present is in some measure lost and the mind wanders towards imagination through the regions of the unknown. As I looked at Marjory, with the afternoon sun falling on her superb figure and showing up her clear-cut profile with all the finish of a cameo, I could not but be struck with the union of gentleness and independence which was so clearly manifested in her. Without thinking, I spoke out my mind. It is a privilege of those who understand each other, or of the very young, to give voice to the latter portion of a train of thought without feeling it necessary to enlighten the hearer as to what has gone to make up the conclusion. The feeling was hourly growing upon me that, even if I could not quite understand Marjory, at least she understood me.
"But then all you American girls are so independent!" She did not seem a bit surprised by this fag end of reasoning; she had evidently been following up some train of thought of her own, and by some happy instinct my words fitted in with it. Without turning towards me, but still keeping her eyes fixed down the stream to where far away it swayed to the right through a gap between pine clad hills she answered:
"Yes! We are as a rule brought up to be independent. It seems to be a part of what our people call the 'genius' of the country. Indeed for many, women as well as men, it is a sort of necessity. Our nation is so vast, and it expands so quickly, that there is nearly everywhere a family separation. In the main, all the children of one generation become the heads of families of the next. Somehow, the bulk of our young people still follow the sunset; and in the new life which comes to each, whether in the fields or in the city or in the reclamation of the wilderness, the one thing which makes life endurable is this independence which is another form of self-reliance. This it is which enables them to brave hunger and thirst and all danger which comes to pioneers; which in the cities makes the solitude of lonely life bearable to the young as well as to the old; which makes them work and study in patience; which makes them self-sacrificing, and thrifty, and long enduring. I tell you it is this which makes a race of patriots, whose voices swell in unison till the great voice of the nation, raised in some good cause, can ring and echo through the world!" As she spoke she got more and more earnest, more and more enthusiastic, till her voice began to vibrate and her face to flush. When she turned towards me at the end, her eyes were full of spiritual light. I looked at her, and I suppose my love as well as my admiration must have expressed itself, for her eyes fell and the flush on her face melted into a soft blush. She turned, looked at the water again, and then went on speaking:
"This is the good side of our independence and faute de mieux it serves; those who know no better do not miss what might be. But oh! it has to be paid for. The little sufferings of day by day can grow into a mass which in the end outweighs those seemingly far greater ills which manifest themselves all at once. No one knows, no one ever will know, how much quiet, dull pain goes to tame a woman's heart to the solitude of life. I have not seen so much of it as some others; my life has been laid in pleasant places, and only through the small accidents of life have I come to know of the negative pain which other girls have to endure. It is so much to have round one the familiar faces of our youth; to meet sympathy at every turn of life, and to know that there is understanding for us always. We women have to give something in order to be happy. The stronger-minded ones, as we call them, blame the Creator for this disposition of things—or else I do not know who or what they blame; but the rest of us, who are wise enough to accept what cannot be altered, try to realise what can be done for the best. We all want to care for some one or something, if it is only a cat or a dog. For myself, so far back as I can remember, I longed to have a brother or sister, but I think that in my secret heart it was a brother I wanted. Of course as I merged into my actual surroundings I grew out of this; but once it was brought home to me with new force. We were staying for a few days in one of those great English houses where there was a growing family of boys and girls. There was one sweet young girl, just about my own age, who seemed idolised by all her brothers. When we arrived they were all going in to evening prayers. The last of the sunlight was falling through the old stained glass window of the great baronial hall, and lit up the little family group. The girl sat between two of her young brothers, great stalwart lads who had all the characteristics of a family of soldiers. During prayers each of them held one of her hands; and when they all knelt, her arms went round their necks. I could not help feeling deeply—down into the very depths of my soul—how good it was for them all. I would have given everything I have, or am ever likely to have, that mine had been such an upbringing. Think, how in after years it will come back to those boys in hours of trial, or pain, or prosperity, or passion; in all times when their manhood or their honour or their worth is to be tried; how they will remember the words which were spoken to them as those were spoken, and were listened to as those were listened to, in the midst of sympathy and love. Many and many a time in years to come those boys will bless such hours, and God Himself will surely rejoice that His will was being wrought in so sweet a way. And the same thing is going on in a thousand English homes!" She paused and turned to me and the feeling in her heart found expression in the silent tears that ran down her cheeks. Again she turned her eyes to the running water and gazed awhile before speaking again. Then looking at me, she went on:
"And the girl, too, how good it was for her! What an antidote to selfishness! How much of self-control, of sympathy, of love, of toleration was begun and fostered and completed in those moments of the expression of her heart! What place can there really be for selfish want and sorrows in the heart of a woman so trained to sympathise with and help others? It is good! good! good! and I pray that in the later development of my own dear country, all such things may have a part. Expansion at its present rate must soon cease; and then some predominant idea must take the place of the eternal self-independence. We shall, I trust, moult no feather of our national feeling of personal duty; but I am sure that our people, and more especially our women, will lead happier as well as healthier lives."
This present phase of Marjory's character was new to me, fresh and enchanting. Every hour seemed to bring out new worths and beauties of the girl's character, of her intellectual gifts, of the endless wealth of her heart.
When she ceased speaking I took her hand in mine, she not resenting, and kissed it. I said only one word "Marjory!" but it was enough. I could see that in her eyes which made my heart leap.
Then a new life seemed to come to both of us. With one accord we moved towards our bicycles, and mounted in silence. After a few minutes of rapid spin down the sloping road from the bridge, we began to chat again gaily. For myself I was in wildly joyous spirits. Even a self-doubting lover could not fail to understand such a look in his mistress's eyes. If ever love spoke out in eloquent silence it was then, all doubt melted from my heart, as the night shadows pale before the dawn. I was content to wait now, illimitably and in silence. She, too, seemed altogether happy, and accepted in unquestioning faith all the little pleasures which came in the progress of our journey. And such pleasures are many. As we drew down the valley of the Dee, with the mountains falling back and the dark pinewoods running up them like tongues of flame and emphasising by their gloom the brightness of grass and heather which cropped up amongst the rocks beyond, every turn of the road brought us to some new scene of peaceful beauty. From under the splendid woods of Crathes Castle we saw the river running like a blue ribbon far to the east and on either side of it fields and gardens and woods spreading wide. On we sped with delight in every moment, till at last through miles of shady woods we came to the great stone bridge, and ended our jaunt over the rough granite cobblestones of Aberdeen.
We were a little before the time the train was due; so leaving our wheels in the Palace Hotel we went down on the platform to meet Mrs. Jack on her arrival.
We met her in due course, and brought her up to the hotel. At the stairway Marjory, who had lingered half a flight behind her companion, whispered to me:
"You have been a good boy to-day, a real good boy; and you shall before long have your reward." As she gave me her hand, I whispered:
"I am content to wait now Marjory; dear Marjory!" She blushed and smiled, and fled upstairs with a warning finger laid upon her lips.
It had been understood that I was to dine with Mrs. Jack and her friend, so I went up to the room which I had secured, to change my clothes. When I came down, in what I thought was a reasonable time, I went to the private sitting-room and knocked. As there was no answer I knocked again; then receiving no reply I took it for granted that the ladies had not yet come from their rooms and entered.
The room was empty but on the table which was laid for dinner for three was a note in Marjory's hand directed to me. With a sinking of the heart I opened it, and stood for a few minutes amazed. It had no apostrophe and ran as follows:—
"We have had to leave suddenly, but Mrs. Jack wants you to oblige her very much if you will be so good. Stay in the room, and when dinner is served sit down by yourself and eat it. Please, please do not think hardly of Mrs. Jack's request; and do not fail to carry it out. There is good reason for it, as you will very soon know. More depends on your doing as Mrs. Jack"—the "Mrs. Jack" was written over an obliterated "I"—"asks than you may think. I am sure that by this time you know you can trust me.
The situation was disappointing and both humiliating and embarrassing. To be a guest under such conditions was almost ridiculous; and under ordinary circumstances I should have refused. But then I remembered that last look of Marjory's eyes at the bridge of Potarch! Without a word, or another thought, of revolt I sat down to the dinner which the waiter was just now bringing into the room.
As it was evident to me that my staying in the room was for some purpose of delay, I lingered over my wine and had two cigars before I came away.