Young Robin Gray
Young Robin Gray
THE good American barque Skyscraper was swinging at her moorings in the Clyde, off Bannock, ready for sea. But that good American barque—although owned in Baltimore—had not a plank of American timber in her hulk, nor a native American in her crew, and even her nautical “goodness” had been called into serious question by divers of that crew during her voyage, and answered more or less inconclusively with belaying-pins, marlin-spikes, and ropes’ ends at the hands of an Irish-American captain and a Dutch and Danish mate. So much so, that the mysterious powers of the American consul at St. Kentigern had been evoked to punish mutiny on the one hand, and battery and starvation on the other; both equally attested by manifestly false witness and subornation on each side. In the exercise of his functions the consul had opened and shut some jail doors, and otherwise effected the usual sullen and deceitful compromise, and his flag was now flying, on a final visit, from the stern sheets of a smart boat alongside. It was with a feeling of relief at the end of the interview that he at last lifted his head above an atmosphere of perjury and bilge-water and came on deck. The sun and wind were ruffling and glinting on the broadening river beyond the “measured mile”; a few gulls were wavering and dipping near the lee scuppers, and the sound of Sabbath bells, mellowed by a distance that secured immunity of conscience, came peacefully to his ear.
“Now that job’s over ye’ll be takin’ a partin’ dhrink,” suggested the captain.
The consul thought not. Certain incidents of “the job” were fresh in his memory, and he proposed to limit himself to his strict duty.
“You have some passengers, I see,” he said, pointing to a group of two men and a young girl, who had apparently just come aboard.
“Only wan; an engineer going out to Rio. Them’s just his friends seein’ him off, I’m thinkin’,” returned the captain, surveying them somewhat contemptuously.
The consul was a little disturbed. He wondered if the passenger knew anything of the quality and reputation of the ship to which he was entrusting his fortunes. But he was only a passenger, and the consul’s functions—like those of the aloft-sitting cherub of nautical song—were restricted exclusively to looking after “Poor Jack.” However, he asked a few further questions, eliciting the fact that the stranger had already visited the ship with letters from the eminently respectable consignees at St. Kentigern, and contented himself with lingering near them. The young girl was accompanied by her father, a respectably rigid-looking middle-class tradesman, who, however, seemed to be more interested in the novelty of his surroundings than in the movements of his daughter and their departing friend. So it chanced that the consul re-entered the cabin—ostensibly in search of a missing glove, but really with the intention of seeing how the passenger was bestowed—just behind them. But to his great embarrassment he at once perceived that, owing to the obscurity of the apartment, they had not noticed him, and before he could withdraw, the man had passed his arm around the young girl’s half stiffened, yet half yielding figure.
“Only one, Ailsa,” he pleaded in a slow, serious voice, pathetic from the very absence of any youthful passion in it; “just one now. It’ll be gey lang before we meet again. Ye’ll not refuse me now.”
The young girl’s lips seemed to murmur some protest that, however, was lost in the beginning of a long and silent kiss.
The consul slipped out softly. His smile had died away. That unlooked-for touch of human weakness seemed to purify the stuffy and evil-reeking cabin, and the recollection of its brutal past to drop with a deck-load of iniquity behind him to the bottom of the Clyde. It is to be feared that in his unofficial moments he was inclined to be sentimental, and it seemed to him that the good ship Skyscraper henceforward carried an innocent freight not mentioned in her manifest, and that a gentle, ever-smiling figure, not entered on her books, had invisibly taken a place at her wheel.
But he was recalled to himself by a slight altercation on deck. The young girl and the passenger had just returned from the cabin. The consul, after a discreetly careless pause, had lifted his eyes to the young girl’s face, and saw that it was singularly pretty in color and outline, but perfectly self-composed and serenely unconscious. And he was a little troubled to observe that the passenger was a middle-aged man, whose hard features were already considerably worn with trial and experience.
Both he and the girl were listening with sympathizing but cautious interest to her father’s contention with the boatman who had brought them from shore, and who was now inclined to demand an extra fee for returning with them. The boatman alleged that he had been detained beyond “kirk time,” and that this imperiling of his salvation could only be compensated by another shilling. To the consul’s surprise, this extraordinary argument was recognized by the father, who, however, contented himself by simply contending that it had not been stipulated in the bargain. The issue was, therefore, limited, and the discussion progressed slowly and deliberately, with a certain calm dignity and argumentative satisfaction on both sides that exalted the subject, though it irritated the captain.
“If ye accept the premisses that I’ve just laid down, that it’s a contract”—began the boatman.
“Dry up! and haul off,” said the captain.
“One moment,” interposed the consul, with a rapid glance at the slight trouble in the young girl’s face. Turning to the father, he went on: “Will you allow me to offer you and your daughter a seat in my boat?”
It was an unlooked-for and tempting proposal. The boatman was lazily lying on his oars, secure in self-righteousness and the conscious possession of the only available boat to shore; on the other hand, the smart gig of the consul, with its four oars, was not only a providential escape from a difficulty, but even to some extent a quasi-official endorsement of his contention. Yet he hesitated. “It’ll be costin’ ye no more?” he said interrogatively, glancing at the consul’s boat crew, “or ye’ll be askin’ me a fair proportion.”
“It will be the gentleman’s own boat,” said the girl, with a certain shy assurance, “and he’ll be paying his boatmen by the day.”
The consul hastened to explain that their passage would involve no additional expense to anybody, and added, tactfully, that he was glad to enable them to oppose extortion.
“Ay, but it’s a preenciple,” said the father proudly, “and I’m pleased, sir, to see ye recognize it.”
He proceeded to help his daughter into the boat without any further leave-taking of the passenger, to the consul’s great surprise, and with only a parting nod from the young girl. It was as if this momentous incident were a sufficient reason for the absence of any further trivial sentiment.
Unfortunately the father chose to add an exordium for the benefit of the astonished boatsman still lying on his oars.
“Let this be a lesson to ye, ma frien’, when ye’re ower sure! Ye’ll ne’er say a herrin’ is dry until it be reestit an’ reekit.”
“Ay,” said the boatman, with a lazy, significant glance at the consul, “it wull be a lesson to me not to trust to a lassie’s gangin’ jo, when thair’s anither yin comin’.”
“Give way,” said the consul sharply.
Yet his was the only irritated face in the boat as the men bent over their oars. The young girl and her father looked placidly at the receding ship, and waved their hands to the grave, resigned face over the taffrail. The consul examined them more attentively. The father’s face showed intelligence and a certain probity in its otherwise commonplace features. The young girl had more distinction, with, perhaps, more delicacy of outline than of texture. Her hair was dark, with a burnished copper tint at its roots, and eyes that had the same burnished metallic lustre in their brown pupils. Both sat respectfully erect, as if anxious to record the fact that the boat was not their own to take their ease in; and both were silently reserved, answering briefly to the consul’s remarks as if to indicate the formality of their presence there. But a distant railway whistle startled them into emotion.
“We’ve lost the train, father!” said the young girl.
The consul followed the direction of her anxious eyes; the train was just quitting the station at Bannock.
“If ye had not lingered below with Jamie, we’d have been away in time, ay, and in our own boat,” said the father, with marked severity.
The consul glanced quickly at the girl. But her face betrayed no consciousness, except of their present disappointment.
“There’s an excursion boat coming round the Point,” he said, pointing to the black smoke trail of a steamer at the entrance of a loch, “and it will be returning to St. Kentigern shortly. If you like, we’ll pull over and put you aboard.”
“Eh! but it’s the Sabbath-breaker!” said the old man harshly.
The consul suddenly remembered that that was the name which the righteous St. Kentigerners had given to the solitary bold, bad pleasure-boat that defied their Sabbatical observances.
“Perhaps you won’t find very pleasant company on board,” said the consul smiling; “but, then, you’re not seeking that. And as you would be only using the boat to get back to your home, and not for Sunday recreation, I don’t think your conscience should trouble you.”
“Ay, that’s a fine argument, Mr. Consul, but I’m thinkin’ it’s none the less sopheestry for a’ that,” said the father grimly. “No; if ye’ll just land us yonder at Bannock pier, we’ll be ay thankin’ ye the same.”
“But what will you do there? There’s no other train to-day.”
“Ay, we’ll walk on a bit.”
The consul was silent. After a pause the young girl lifted her clear eyes, and with a half pathetic, half childish politeness, said: “We’ll be doing very well—my father and me. You’re far too kind.”
Nothing further was said as they began to thread their way between a few large ships and an ocean steamer at anchor, from whose decks a few Sunday-clothed mariners gazed down admiringly on the smart gig and the pretty girl in a Tam o’ Shanter in its stern sheets. But here a new idea struck the consul. A cable’s length ahead lay a yacht, owned by an American friend, and at her stern a steam launch swung to its painter. Without intimating his intention to his passengers he steered for it. “Bow!—way enough,” he called out as the boat glided under the yacht’s counter, and, grasping the companion-ladder ropes, he leaped aboard. In a few hurried words he explained the situation to Mr. Robert Gray, her owner, and suggested that he should send the belated passengers to St. Kentigern by the launch. Gray assented with the easy good-nature of youth, wealth, and indolence, and lounged from his cabin to the side. The consul followed. Looking down upon the boat he could not help observing that his fair young passenger, sitting in her demure stillness at her father’s side, made a very pretty picture. It was possible that “Bob Gray” had made the same observation, for he presently swung himself over the gangway into the gig, hat in hand. The launch could easily take them; in fact, he added unblushingly, it was even then getting up steam to go to St. Kentigern. Would they kindly come on board until it was ready? At an added word or two of explanation from the consul, the father accepted, preserving the same formal pride and stiffness, and the transfer was made. The consul, looking back as his gig swept round again towards Bannock pier, received their parting salutations, and the first smile he had seen on the face of his grave little passenger. He thought it very sweet and sad.
He did not return to the Consulate at St. Kentigern until the next day. But he was somewhat surprised to find Mr. Robert Gray awaiting him, and upon some business which the young millionaire could have easily deputed to his captain or steward. As he still lingered, the consul pleasantly referred to his generosity on the previous day, and hoped the passengers had given him no trouble.
“No,” said Gray with a slight simulation of carelessness. “In fact I came up with them myself. I had nothing to do; it was Sunday, you know.”
The consul lifted his eyebrows slightly.
“Yes, I saw them home,” continued Gray lightly. “In one of those by-streets not far from here; neat-looking house outside; inside, corkscrew stone staircase like a lighthouse; fourth floor, no lift, but she circled up like a swallow! Flat—sitting-room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen—mighty snug and shipshape and pretty as a pink. They own it too—fancy owning part of a house! Seems to be a way they have here in St. Kentigern.” He paused and then added: “Stayed there to a kind of high tea!”
“Indeed,” said the consul.
“Why not? The old man wanted to return my ‘hospitality’ and square the account! He wasn’t going to lie under any obligation to a stranger, and, by Jove! he made it a special point of honor! A Spanish grandee couldn’t have been more punctilious. And with an accent, Jerusalem! like a northeaster off the Banks! But the feed was in good taste, and he only a mathematical instrument maker, on about twelve hundred dollars a year!”
“You seem to know all about him,” said the consul smilingly.
“Not so much as he does about me,” returned Gray, with a half perplexed face; “for he saw enough to admonish me about my extravagance, and even to intimate that that rascal Saunderson, my steward, was imposing on me. She took me to task, too, for not laying the yacht up on Sunday that the men could go ‘to kirk,’ and for swearing at a bargeman who ran across our bows. It’s their perfect simplicity and sincerity in all this that gets me! You’d have thought that the old man was my guardian, and the daughter my aunt.” After a pause he uttered a reminiscent laugh. “She thought we ate and drank too much on the yacht, and wondered what we could find to do all day. All this, you know, in the gentlest, caressing sort of voice, as if she was really concerned, like one’s own sister. Well, not exactly like mine”—he interrupted himself grimly—“but, hang it all, you know what I mean. You know that our girls over there haven’t got that trick of voice. Too much self-assertion, I reckon; things made too easy for them by us men. Habit of race, I dare say.” He laughed a little. “Why, I mislaid my glove when I was coming away, and it was as good as a play to hear her commiserating and sympathizing, and hunting for it as if it were a lost baby.”
“But you’ve seen Scotch girls before this,” said the consul. “There were Lady Glairn’s daughters, whom you took on a cruise.”
“Yes, but the swell Scotch all imitate the English, as everybody else does, for the matter of that, our girls included; and they’re all alike. Society makes ’em fit in together like tongued and grooved planks that will take any amount of holy-stoning and polish. It’s like dropping into a dead calm, with every rope and spar that you know already reflected back from the smooth water upon you. It’s mighty pretty, but it isn’t getting on, you know.” After a pause he added: “I asked them to take a little holiday cruise with me.”
“And they declined,” interrupted the consul.
Gray glanced at him quickly.
“Well, yes; that’s all right enough. They don’t know me, you see, but they do know you; and the fact is, I was thinking that as you’re our consul here, don’t you see, and sort of responsible for me, you might say that it was all right, you know. Quite the customary thing with us over there. And you might say, generally, who I am.”
“I see,” said the consul deliberately. “Tell them you’re Bob Gray, with more money and time than you know what to do with; that you have a fine taste for yachting and shooting and racing, and amusing yourself generally; that you find that they amuse you, and you would like your luxury and your dollars to stand as an equivalent to their independence and originality; that, being a good republican yourself, and recognizing no distinction of class, you don’t care what this may mean to them, who are brought up differently; that after their cruise with you you don’t care what life, what friends, or what jealousies they return to; that you know no ties, no responsibilities beyond the present, and that you are not a marrying man.”
“Look here, I say, aren’t you making a little too much of this?” said Gray stiffly.
The consul laughed. “I should be glad to know that I am.”
Gray rose. “We’ll be dropping down the river to-morrow,” he said, with a return of his usual lightness, “and I reckon I’ll be toddling down to the wharf. Good-bye, if I don’t see you again.”
He passed out. As the consul glanced from the window he observed, however, that Mr. Gray was “toddling” in quite another direction than the wharf. For an instant he half regretted that he had not suggested, in some discreet way, the conclusion he had arrived at after witnessing the girl’s parting with the middle-aged passenger the day before. But he reflected that this was something he had only accidentally overseen, and was the girl’s own secret.
When the summer had so waxed in its fullness that the smoke of factory chimneys drifted high, permitting glimpses of fairly blue sky; when the grass in St. Kentigern’s proudest park took on a less sober green in the comfortable sun, and even in the thickest shade there was no chilliness, the good St. Kentigerners recognized that the season had arrived to go “down the river,” and that it was time for them to betake themselves, with rugs, mackintoshes, and umbrellas, to the breezy lochs and misty hillsides for which the neighborhood of St. Kentigern is justly famous. So when it came to pass that the blinds were down in the highest places, and the most exclusive pavements of St. Kentigern were echoless and desolate, the consul heroically tore himself from the weak delight of basking in the sunshine, and followed the others.
He soon found himself settled at the furthest end of a long narrow loch, made longer and narrower by the steep hillside of rock and heather which flanked its chilly surface on either side, and whose inequalities were lost in the firs and larches that filled ravine and chasm. The fragrant road which ran sinuously through their shadowy depths was invisible from the loch; no protuberance broke the seemingly sheer declivity; the even sky-line was indented in two places—one where it was cracked into a fanciful resemblance to a human profile, the other where it was curved like a bowl. Need it be said that one was distinctly recognized as the silhouette of a prehistoric giant, and that the other was his drinking-cup; need it be added that neither lent the slightest human suggestion to the solitude? A toy-like pier extending into the loch, midway from the barren shore, only heightened the desolation. And when the little steamboat that occasionally entered the loch took away a solitary passenger from the pier-head, the simplest parting was invested with a dreary loneliness that might have brought tears to the most hardened eye.
Still, when the shadow of either hillside was not reaching across the loch, the meridian sun, chancing upon this coy mirror, made the most of it. Then it was that, seen from above, it flashed like a falchion lying between the hills; then its reflected glory, striking up, transfigured the two acclivities, tipped the cold heather with fire, gladdened the funereal pines, and warmed the ascetic rocks. And it was in one of those rare, passionate intervals that the consul, riding along the wooded track and turning his eyes from their splendors, came upon a little house.
It had once been a sturdy cottage, with a grim endurance and inflexibility which even some later and lighter additions had softened rather than changed. On either side of the door, against the bleak whitewashed wall, two tall fuchsias relieved the rigid blankness with a show of color. The windows were prettily draped with curtains caught up with gay ribbons. In a stony pound-like enclosure there was some attempt at floral cultivation, but all quite recent. So, too, were a wicker garden seat, a bright Japanese umbrella, and a tropical hammock suspended between two arctic-looking bushes, which the rude and rigid forefathers of the hamlet would have probably resented.
He had just passed the house when a charming figure slipped across the road before him. To his surprise it was the young girl he had met a few months before on the Skyscraper. But the Tam o’ Shanter was replaced by a little straw hat; and a light dress, summery in color and texture, but more in keeping with her rustic surroundings, seemed as grateful and rare as the sunshine. Without knowing why, he had an impression that it was of her own making—a gentle plagiarism of the style of her more fortunate sisters, but with a demure restraint all her own. As she recognized him a faint color came to her cheek, partly from surprise, partly from some association. To his delighted greeting she responded by informing him that her father had taken the cottage he had just passed, where they were spending a three weeks’ vacation from his business. It was not so far from St. Kentigern but that he could run up for a day to look after the shop. Did the consul not think it was wise?
Quite ready to assent to any sagacity in those clear brown eyes, the consul thought it was. But was it not, like wisdom, sometimes lonely?
Ah! no. There was the loch and the hills and the heather; there were her flowers; did he not think they were growing well? and at the head of the loch there was the old tomb of the McHulishes, and some of the coffins were still to be seen.
Perhaps emboldened by the consul’s smile, she added, with a more serious precision which was, however, lost in the sympathizing caress of her voice, “And would you not be getting off and coming in and resting a wee bit before you go further? It would be so good of you, and father would think it so kind. And he will be there now, if you’re looking.”
The consul looked. The old man was standing in the doorway of the cottage, as respectably uncompromising as ever, with the slight concession to his rural surroundings of wearing a Tam o’ Shanter and easy slippers. The consul dismounted and entered. The interior was simply, but tastefully furnished. It struck him that the Scotch prudence and economy, which practically excluded display and meretricious glitter, had reached the simplicity of the truest art and the most refined wealth. He felt he could understand Gray’s enthusiasm, and by an odd association of ideas he found himself thinking of the resigned face of the lonely passenger on the Skyscraper.
“Have you heard any news of your friend who went to Rio?” he asked pleasantly, but without addressing himself particularly to either.
There was a perceptible pause; doubtless of deference to her father on the part of the young girl, and of the usual native conscientious caution on the part of the father, but neither betrayed any embarrassment or emotion. “No; he would not be writing yet,” she at length said simply, “he would be waiting until he was settled to his business. Jamie would be waiting until he could say how he was doing, father?” she appealed interrogatively to the old man.
“Ay, James Gow would not fash himself to write compliments and gossip till he knew his position and work,” corroborated the old man. “He’ll not be going two thousand miles to send us what we can read in the St. Kentigern Herald. But,” he added, suddenly, with a recall of cautiousness, “perhaps you will be hearing of the ship?”
“The consul will not be remembering what he hears of all the ships,” interposed the young girl, with the same gentle affectation of superior worldly knowledge which had before amused him. “We’ll be wearying him, father,” and the subject dropped.
The consul, glancing around the room again, but always returning to the sweet and patient seriousness of the young girl’s face and the grave decorum of her father, would have liked to ask another question, but it was presently anticipated; for when he had exhausted the current topics, in which both father and daughter displayed a quiet sagacity, and he had gathered a sufficient knowledge of their character to seem to justify Gray’s enthusiasm, and was rising to take his leave, the young girl said timidly:—
“Would ye not let Bessie take your horse to the grass field over yonder, and yourself stay with us to dinner? It would be most kind, and you would meet a great friend of yours who will be here.”
“Mr. Gray?” suggested the consul audaciously. Yet he was greatly surprised when the young girl said quietly, “Ay.”
“He’ll be coming in the loch with his yacht,” said the old man. “It’s not so expensive lying here as at Bannock, I’m thinking; and the men cannot gang ashore for drink. Eh, but it’s an awful waste o’ pounds, shillings, and pence, keeping these gowks in idleness with no feeshin’ nor carrying of passengers.”
“Ay, but it’s better Mr. Gray should pay them for being decent and well-behaved on board his ship, than that they should be out of work and rioting in taverns and lodging-houses. And you yourself, father, remember the herrin’ fishers that come ashore at Ardie, and the deck hands of the excursion boat, and the language they’ll be using.”
“Have you had a cruise in the yacht?” asked the consul quickly.
“Ay,” said the father, “we have been up and down the loch, and around the far point, but not for boardin’ or lodgin’ the night, nor otherwise conteenuing or parteecipating. I have explained to Mr. Gray that we must return to our own home and our own porridge at evening, and he has agreed, and even come with us. He’s a decent enough lad, and not above instructin’, but extraordinar’ extravagant.”
“Ye know, father,” interposed the young girl, “he talks of fitting up the yacht for the fishing, and taking some of his most decent men on shares. He says he was very fond of fishing off the Massachusetts coast, in America. It will be, I’m thinking,” she said, suddenly turning to the consul with an almost pathetic appeal in her voice, “a great occupation for the rich young men over there.”
The consul, desperately struggling with a fanciful picture of Mr. Robert Gray as a herring fisher, thought gravely that it “might be.” But he thought still more gravely, though silently, of this singular companionship, and was somewhat anxious to confront his friend with his new acquaintances. He had not long to wait. The sun was just dipping behind the hill when the yacht glided into the lonely loch. A boat was put off, and in a few moments Robert Gray was climbing the little path from the loch.
Had the consul expected any embarrassment or lover-like consciousness on the face of Mr. Gray at their unexpected meeting, he would have been disappointed. Nor was the young man’s greeting of father and daughter, whom he addressed as Mr. and Miss Callender, marked by any tenderness or hesitation. On the contrary, a certain seriousness and quiet reticence, unlike Gray, which might have been borrowed from his new friends, characterized his speech and demeanor. Beyond this freemasonry of sad repression there was no significance of look or word passed between these two young people. The girl’s voice retained its even pathos. Gray’s grave politeness was equally divided between her and her father. He corroborated what Callender had said of his previous visits without affectation or demonstration; he spoke of the possibilities of his fitting up the yacht for the fishing season with a practical detail and economy that left the consul’s raillery ineffective. Even when, after dinner, the consul purposely walked out in the garden with the father, Gray and Ailsa presently followed them without lingering or undue precipitation, and with no change of voice or manner. The consul was perplexed. Had the girl already told Gray of her lover across the sea, and was this singular restraint their joint acceptance of their fate; or was he mistaken in supposing that their relations were anything more than the simple friendship of patron and protégée? Gray was rich enough to indulge in such a fancy, and the father and daughter were too proud to ever allow it to influence their own independence. In any event the consul’s right to divulge the secret he was accidentally possessed of seemed more questionable than ever. Nor did there appear to be any opportunity for a confidential talk with Gray, since it was proposed that the whole party should return to the yacht for supper, after which the consul should be dropped at the pier-head, distant only a few minutes from his hotel, and his horse sent to him the next day.
A faint moon was shimmering along the surface of Loch Dour in icy little ripples when they pulled out from the shadows of the hillside. By the accident of position, Gray, who was steering, sat beside Ailsa in the stern, while the consul and Mr. Callender were further forward, although within hearing. The faces of the young people were turned towards each other, yet in the cold moonlight the consul fancied they looked as impassive and unemotional as statues. The few distant, far-spaced lights that trembled on the fading shore, the lonely glitter of the water, the blackness of the pine-clad ravines seemed to be a part of this repression, until the vast melancholy of the lake appeared to meet and overflow them like an advancing tide. Added to this, there came from time to time the faint sound and smell of the distant, desolate sea.
The consul, struggling manfully to keep up a spasmodic discussion on Scotch diminutives in names, found himself mechanically saying:
“And James you call Jamie?”
“Ay; but ye would say, to be pure Scotch, ‘Hamish,’” said Mr. Callender precisely. The girl, however, had not spoken; but Gray turned to her with something of his old gayety.
“And I suppose you would call me ‘Robbie’?”
Her voice was low yet distinct, but she had thrown into the two syllables such infinite tenderness, that the consul was for an instant struck with an embarrassment akin to that he had felt in the cabin of the Skyscraper, and half expected the father to utter a shocked protest. And to save what he thought would be an appalling silence, he said with a quiet laugh:—
“That’s the fellow who ‘made the assembly shine’ in the song, isn’t it?”
“That was Robin Adair,” said Gray quietly; “unfortunately I would only be ‘Robin Gray,’ and that’s quite another song.”
“Auld Robin Gray, sir, deestinctly ‘auld’ in the song,” interrupted Mr. Callender with stern precision; “and I’m thinking he was not so very unfortunate either.”
The discussion of Scotch diminutives halting here, the boat sped on silently to the yacht. But although Robert Gray, as host, recovered some of his usual lightheartedness, the consul failed to discover anything in his manner to indicate the lover, nor did Miss Ailsa after her single lapse of tender accent exhibit the least consciousness. It was true that their occasional frank allusions to previous conversations seemed to show that their opportunities had not been restricted, but nothing more. He began again to think he was mistaken.
As he wished to return early, and yet not hasten the Callenders, he prevailed upon Gray to send him to the pier-head first, and not disturb the party. As he stepped into the boat, something in the appearance of the coxswain awoke an old association in his mind. The man at first seemed to avoid his scrutiny, but when they were well away from the yacht, he said hesitatingly:—
“I see you remember me, sir. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ve got a good berth here and would like to keep it.”
The consul had a flash of memory. It was the boatswain of the Skyscraper, one of the least objectionable of the crew. “But what are you doing here? you shipped for the voyage,” he said sharply.
“Yes, but I got away at Key West, when I knew what was coming. I wasn’t on her when she was abandoned.”
Abandoned!” repeated the consul. “What the d——l! Do you mean to say she was wrecked?”
“Well, yes—you know what I mean, sir. It was an understood thing. She was over-insured and scuttled in the Bahamas. It was a put-up job, and I reckoned I was well out of it.”
“But there was a passenger! What of him?” demanded the consul anxiously.
“Dunno! But I reckon he got away. There wasn’t any of the crew lost that I know of. Let’s see, he was an engineer, wasn’t he? I reckon he had to take a hand at the pumps, and his chances with the rest.”
“Does Mr. Gray know of this?” asked the consul after a pause.
The man stared.
“Not from me, sir. You see it was nothin’ to him, and I didn’t care talking much about the Skyscraper. It was hushed up in the papers. You won’t go back on me, sir?”
“You don’t know what became of the passenger?”
“No! But he was a Scotchman, and they’re bound to fall on their feet somehow!”
The December fog that overhung St. Kentigern had thinned sufficiently to permit the passage of a few large snowflakes, soiled in their descent, until in color and consistency they spotted the steps of the Consulate and the umbrellas of the passers-by like sprinklings of gray mortar. Nevertheless the consul thought the streets preferable to the persistent gloom of his office, and sallied out. Youthful mercantile St. Kentigern strode sturdily past him in the lightest covert coats; collegiate St. Kentigern fluttered by in the scantiest of red gowns, shaming the furs that defended his more exotic blood; and the bare red feet of a few factory girls, albeit their heads and shoulders were draped and hooded in thick shawls, filled him with a keen sense of his effeminacy. Everything of earth, air, and sky, and even the faces of those he looked upon, seemed to be set in the hard, patient endurance of the race. Everywhere on that dismal day, he fancied he could see this energy without restlessness, this earnestness without geniality, all grimly set against the hard environment of circumstance and weather.
The consul turned into one of the main arteries of St. Kentigern, a wide street that, however, began and ended inconsequently, and with half a dozen social phases in as many blocks. Here the snow ceased, the fog thickened suddenly with the waning day, and the consul found himself isolated and cut off on a block which he did not remember, with the clatter of an invisible tramway in his ears. It was a block of small houses with smaller shop-fronts. The one immediately before him seemed to be an optician’s, but the dimly lighted windows also displayed the pathetic reinforcement of a few watches, cheap jewelry on cards, and several cairngorm brooches and pins set in silver. It occurred to him that he wanted a new watch crystal, and that he would procure it here and inquire his way. Opening the door he perceived that there was no one in the shop, but from behind the counter another open door disclosed a neat sitting-room, so close to the street that it gave the casual customer the sensation of having intruded upon domestic privacy. The consul’s entrance tinkled a small bell which brought a figure to the door. It was Ailsa Callender.
The consul was startled. He had not seen her since he had brought to their cottage the news of the shipwreck with a precaution and delicacy that their calm self-control and patient resignation, however, seemed to make almost an impertinence. But this was no longer the handsome shop in the chief thoroughfare with its two shopmen, which he previously knew as “Callender’s.” And Ailsa here! What misfortune had befallen them?
Whatever it was, there was no shadow of it in her clear eyes and frank yet timid recognition of him. Falling in with her stoical and reticent acceptance of it, he nevertheless gathered that the Callenders had lost money in some invention which James Gow had taken with him to Rio, but which was sunk in the ship. With this revelation of a business interest in what he had believed was only a sentimental relation, the consul ventured to continue his inquiries. Mr. Gow had escaped with his life and had reached Honduras, where he expected to try his fortunes anew. It might be a year or two longer before there were any results. Did the consul know anything of Honduras? There was coffee there—so she and her father understood. All this with little hopefulness, no irritation, but a divine patience in her eyes. The consul, who found that his watch required extensive repairing, and had suddenly developed an inordinate passion for cairngorms, watched her as she opened the show-case with no affectation of unfamiliarity with her occupation, but with all her old serious concern. Surely she would have made as thorough a shop-girl as she would—— His half-formulated thought took the shape of a question.
“Have you seen Mr. Gray since his return from the Mediterranean?”
Ah! one of the brooches had slipped from her fingers to the bottom of the case. There was an interval or two of pathetic murmuring, with her fair head under the glass, before she could find it; then she lifted her eyes to the consul. They were still slightly suffused with her sympathetic concern. The stone, which was set in a thistle—the national emblem—did he not know it?—had dropped out. But she could put it in. It was pretty and not expensive. It was marked twelve shillings on the card, but he could have it for ten shillings. No, she had not seen Mr. Gray since they had lost their fortune. (It struck the consul as none the less pathetic that she seemed really to believe in their former opulence.) They could not be seeing him there in a small shop, and they could not see him elsewhere. It was far better as it was. Yet she paused a moment when she had wrapped up the brooch. “You’d be seeing him yourself sometimes?” she added gently.
“Then you’ll not mind saying how my father and myself are sometimes thinking of his goodness and kindness,” she went on, in a voice whose tenderness seemed to increase with the formal precision of her speech.
“And you’ll say we’re not forgetting him.”
As she handed him the parcel her lips softly parted in what might have been equally a smile or a sigh.
He was able to keep his promise sooner than he had imagined. It was only a few weeks later that, arriving in London, he found Gray’s hatbox and bag in the vestibule of his club, and that gentleman himself in the smoking-room. He looked tanned and older.
“I only came from Southampton an hour ago, where I left the yacht. And,” shaking the consul’s hand cordially, “how’s everything and everybody up at old St. Kentigern?”
The consul thought fit to include his news of the Callenders in reference to that query, and with his eyes fixed on Gray dwelt at some length on their change of fortune. Gray took his cigar from his mouth, but did not lift his eyes from the fire. Presently he said, “I suppose that’s why Callender declined to take the shares I offered him in the fishing scheme. You know I meant it, and would have done it.”
“Perhaps he had other reasons.”
“What do you mean?” said Gray, facing the consul suddenly.
“Look here, Gray,” said the consul, “did Miss Callender or her father ever tell you she was engaged?”
“Yes; but what’s that to do with it?”
“A good deal. Engagements, you know, are sometimes forced, unsuitable, or unequal, and are broken by circumstances. Callender is proud.”
Gray turned upon the consul the same look of gravity that he had worn on the yacht—the same look that the consul even fancied he had seen in Ailsa’s eyes. “That’s exactly where you’re mistaken in her,” he said slowly. “A girl like that gives her word and keeps it. She waits, hopes, accepts what may come—breaks her heart, if you will, but not her word. Come, let’s talk of something else. How did he—that man Gow—lose Callender’s money?”
The consul did not see the Callenders again on his return, and perhaps did not think it necessary to report the meeting. But one morning he was delighted to find an official document from New York upon his desk, asking him to communicate with David Callender of St. Kentigern, and, on proof of his identity, giving him authority to draw the sum of five thousand dollars damages awarded for the loss of certain property on the Skyscraper, at the request of James Gow. Yet it was with mixed sensations that the consul sought the little shop of the optician with this convincing proof of Gow’s faithfulness and the indissolubility of Ailsa’s engagement. That there was some sad understanding between the girl and Gray he did not doubt, and perhaps it was not strange that he felt a slight partisanship for his friend, whose nature had so strangely changed. Miss Ailsa was not there. Her father explained that her health had required a change, and she was visiting some friends on the river.
“I’m thinkin’ that the atmosphere is not so pure here. It is deficient in ozone. I noticed it myself in the early morning. No! it was not the confinement of the shop, for she never cared to go out.”
He received the announcement of his good fortune with unshaken calm and great practical consideration of detail. He would guarantee his identity to the consul. As for James Gow, it was no more than fair; and what he had expected of him. As to its being an equivalent of his loss, he could not tell until the facts were before him.
“Miss Ailsa,” suggested the consul venturously, “will be pleased to hear again from her old friend, and know that he is succeeding.”
“I’m not so sure that ye could call it ‘succeeding,’” returned the old man, carefully wiping the glasses of a pair of spectacles that he held critically to the light, “when ye consider that, saying nothing of the waste of valuable time, it only puts James Gow back where he was when he went away.”
“But any man who has had the pleasure of knowing Mr. and Miss Callender would be glad to be on that footing,” said the consul, with polite significance.
“I’m not agreeing with you there,” said Mr. Callender quietly; “and I’m observing in ye of late a tendency to combine business wi’ compleement. But it was kind of ye to call; and I’ll be sending ye the authorization.”
Which he did. But the consul, passing through the locality a few weeks later, was somewhat concerned to find the shop closed, with others on the same block, behind a hoarding that indicated rebuilding and improvement. Further inquiry elicited the fact that the small leases had been bought up by some capitalist, and that Mr. Callender, with the others, had benefited thereby. But there was no trace nor clew to his present locality. He and his daughter seemed to have again vanished with this second change in their fortunes.
It was a late March morning when the streets were dumb with snow, and the air was filled with flying granulations that tinkled against the windows of the Consulate like fairy sleigh-bells, when there was the stamping of snow-clogged feet in the outer hall, and the door was opened to Mr. and Miss Callender. For an instant the consul was startled. The old man appeared as usual—erect, and as frigidly respectable as one of the icicles that fringed the window, but Miss Ailsa was, to his astonishment, brilliant with a new-found color, and sparkling with health and only half-repressed animation. The snow-flakes, scarcely melting on the brown head of this true daughter of the North, still crowned her hood; and, as she threw back her brown cloak and disclosed a plump little scarlet jacket and brown skirt, the consul could not resist her suggested likeness to some bright-eyed robin redbreast, to whom the inclement weather had given a charming audacity. And shy and demure as she still was, it was evident that some change had been wrought in her other than that evoked by the stimulus of her native sky and air.
To his eager questioning, the old man replied briefly that he had bought the old cottage at Loch Dour, where they were living, and where he had erected a small manufactory and laboratory for the making of his inventions, which had become profitable. The consul reiterated his delight at meeting them again.
“I’m not so sure of that, sir, when you know the business on which I come,” said Mr. Callender, dropping rigidly into a chair, and clasping his hands over the crutch of a shepherd-like staff. “Ye mind, perhaps, that ye conveyed to me, osteensibly at the request of James Gow, a certain sum of money, for which I gave ye a good and sufficient guarantee. I thought at the time that it was a most feckless and unbusiness-like proceeding on the part of James, as it was without corroboration or advice by letter; but I took the money.”
“Do you mean to say that he made no allusion to it in his other letters?” interrupted the consul, glancing at Ailsa.
“There were no other letters at the time,” said Callender dryly. “But about a month afterwards we did receive a letter from him enclosing a draft and a full return of the profits of the invention, which he had sold in Honduras. Ye’ll observe the deescrepancy! I then wrote to the bank on which I had drawn as you authorized me, and I found that they knew nothing of any damages awarded, but that the sum I had drawn had been placed to my credit by Mr. Robert Gray.”
In a flash the consul recalled the one or two questions that Gray had asked him, and saw it all. For an instant he felt the whole bitterness of Gray’s misplaced generosity—its exposure and defeat. He glanced again hopelessly at Ailsa. In the eye of that fresh, glowing, yet demure, young goddess, unhallowed as the thought might be, there was certainly a distinctly tremulous wink.
The consul took heart. “I believe I need not say, Mr. Callender,” he began with some stiffness, “that this is as great a surprise to me as to you. I had no reason to believe the transaction other than bonâ fide, and acted accordingly. If my friend, deeply sympathizing with your previous misfortune, has hit upon a delicate, but unbusiness-like way of assisting you temporarily—I say temporarily, because it must have been as patent to him as to you, that you would eventually find out his generous deceit—you surely can forgive him for the sake of his kind intention. Nay, more; may I point out to you that you have no right to assume that this benefaction was intended exclusively for you; if Mr. Gray, in his broader sympathy with you and your daughter, has in this way chosen to assist and strengthen the position of a gentleman so closely connected with you, but still struggling with hard fortune——”
“I’d have ye know, sir,” interrupted the old man, rising to his feet, “that ma frien’ Mr. James Gow is as independent of yours as he is of me and mine. He has married, sir, a Mrs. Hernandez, the rich widow of a coffee-planter, and now is the owner of the whole estate, minus the encumbrance of three children. And now, sir, you’ll take this,”—he drew from his pocket an envelope. “It’s a draft for five thousand dollars, with the ruling rate of interest computed from the day I received it till this day, and ye’ll give it to your frien’ when ye see him. And ye’ll just say to him from me——”
But Miss Ailsa, with a spirit and independence that challenged her father’s, here suddenly fluttered between them with sparkling eyes and outstretched hands.
“And ye’ll say to him from me that a more honorable, noble, and generous man, and a kinder, truer, and better friend than he, cannot be found anywhere! And that the foolishest and most extravagant thing he ever did is better than the wisest and most prudent thing that anybody else ever did, could, or would do! And if he was a bit overproud—it was only because those about him were overproud and foolish. And you’ll tell him that we’re wearying for him! And when you give him that daft letter from father you’ll give him this bit line from me,” she went on rapidly as she laid a tiny note in his hand. “And,” with wicked dancing eyes that seemed to snap the last bond of repression, “ye’ll give him that too, and say I sent it!”
There was a stir in the official apartment! The portraits of Lincoln and Washington rattled uneasily in their frames; but it was no doubt only a discreet blast of the north wind that drowned the echo of a kiss.
“Ailsa!” gasped the shocked Mr. Callender.
“Ah! but, father, if it had not been for him we would not have known Robin.”
It was the last that the consul saw of Ailsa Callender; for the next summer when he called at Loch Dour she was Mrs. Gray.
- A selection from "Good Words"