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   Chapter 5 IN THE MATTER OF A KISS

A Daughter of Raasay By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 20919

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


It may be guessed that the music of the gray morn when we started found a ready echo in my heart. The whistle of a plover cut the breaking day, the meadow larks piped clear above us in chorus with the trilling of the thrush, the wimpling burn tinkled its song, and the joy that took me fairly by the throat was in tune with all of them. For what does a lover ask but to be one and twenty, to be astride a willing horse, and to be beside the one woman in the world for him? Sure 'tis heaven enough to watch the colour come and go in her face, to hear the lilt of her voice, and to see the changing light in her eye. What though at times we were shy as the wild rabbit, we were none the less happy for that. In our hearts there bubbled a childlike gaiety; we skipped upon the sunlit hilltops of life.

And here was the one drop of poison in the honey of my cup: that I was wearing an abominable misfit of a drab-coloured suit of homespun more adapted to some village tradesman than to a young cavalier of fashion, for on account of the hue and cry against me I had pocketed my pride and was travelling under an incognito. Nor did it comfort me one whit that Aileen also was furbished up in sombre gray to represent my sister, for she looked so taking in it that I vow 'twas more becoming than her finery. Yet I made the best of it, and many a good laugh we got from rehearsing our parts.

I can make no hand at remembering what we had to say to each other, nor does it matter; in cold type 'twould lose much of its charm. The merry prattle of her pretty broken English was set to music for me, and the very silences were eloquent of thrill. Early I discovered that I had not appreciated fully her mental powers, on account of a habit she had of falling into a shy silence when several were present. She had a nimble wit, an alert fancy, and a zest for life as earnest as it was refreshing. A score of times that day she was out of the shabby chaise to pick the wild flowers or to chat with the children by the wayside. The memory of her warm friendliness to me stands out the more clear contrasted with the frigid days that followed.

It may be thought by some that our course in travelling together bordered on the edge of the proprieties, but it must be remembered that the situation was a difficult one for us both. Besides which my sister Cloe was always inclined to be independent, of a romantical disposition, and herself young; as for Aileen, I doubt whether any thought of the conventions crossed her mind. Her people would be wearying to see her; her friend Kenneth Montagu had offered his services to conduct her home; Hamish Gorm was a jealous enough chaperone for any girl, and the maid that Cloe had supplied would serve to keep the tongues of the gossips from clacking.

We put up that first evening at The King's Arms, a great rambling inn of two stories which caught the trade of many of the fashionable world on their way to and from London. Aileen and I dined together at a table in the far end of the large dining-room. As I remember we were still uncommon merry, she showing herself very clever at odd quips and turns of expression. We found matter for jest in a large placard on the wall, with what purported to be a picture of me, the printed matter containing the usual description and offer of reward. Watching her, I was thinking that I had never known a girl more in love with life or with so mobile a face when a large company of arrivals from London poured gaily into the room.

They were patched and powdered as if prepared for a ball rather than for the dust of the road. Dowagers, frigid and stately as marble, murmured racy gossip to each other behind their fans. Famous beauties flitted hither and thither, beckoning languid fops with their alluring eyes. Wits and beaux sauntered about elegantly even as at White's. 'Twas plain that this was a party en route for one of the great county houses near.

Aileen stared with wide-open eyes and parted lips at these great dames from the fashionable world about which she knew nothing. They were prominent members of the leading school for backbiting in England, and in ten minutes they had talked more scandal than the Highland lass had heard before in a lifetime. But the worst of the situation was that there was not one of them but would cry "Montagu!" when they clapped eyes on me. Here were Lord March, George Selwyn, Sir James Craven, Topham Beauclerc, and young Winton Westerleigh; Lady Di Davenport and the Countess Dowager of Rocksboro; the Hon. Isabel Stanford, Mistress Antoinette Westerleigh, and others as well known to me. They had taken us at unawares, and as Creagh would have put it in an Irish bull the only retreat possible for us was an advance through the enemy. At present they paid no more attention to us than they would to the wooden negro in front of a tobacco shop, but at any moment detection might confront me. Faith, here was a predicament! Conceive me, with a hundred guineas set upon my head, thrust into the very company in all England I would most have avoided.

And of all the people in the world they chanced on me as a topic of conversation. George Selwyn, strolling up and down the room, for want of something better to do, stopped in front of that confounded placard and began reading it aloud. Now I don't mind being described as "Tall, strong, well-built, and extremely good-looking; brown eyes and waving hair like ilk; carries himself with distinction;" but I grue at being set down as a common cutpurse, especially when I had taken the trouble to send back Sir Robert's jewelry at some risk to myself.

"Wonder what Montagu has done with himself," queried Beauclerc after Selwyn had finished.

"Or what Volney has done with him," muttered March behind his hand. "I'll lay two to one in ponies he never lives to cross another man."

"You're wrong, March, if you think Volney finished him. He's alive all right. I heard it from Denman that he got safe across to France. Pity Volney didn't pink the fellow through the heart for his d--d impudence in interfering; not that I can stand Volney either, curse the popinjay!" snarled Craven sourly.

"If Montagu reaches the continent, 'twill be a passover the Jews who hold his notes will not relish," suggested Selwyn in his sleepy way.

A pink-and-white-faced youth shimmering in cream satin was the animated heart of another group. His love for scandal and his facility for acquiring the latest tidbit made him the delight of many an old tabby cat. Now his eyes shone with the joy of imparting a delicious morsel.

"Egad, then, you're all wrong," he was saying in a shrill falsetto. "Stap me, the way of it was this! I have it on the best of authority and it comes direct, rot me if it doesn't! Sir Robert's man, Watkins, told Madame Bellevue's maid, from whom it came straight to Lord Pam's fellow and through him to old Methuselah, who mentioned it to--"

"You needn't finish tracing the lineage of the misinformation. We'll assume it began with Adam and ended with a dam-with a descendant of his," interrupted Craven with his usual insolence. "Now out with the lie!"

"'Pon honour, Craven, 'tis gospel truth," gasped Pink-and-White.

"Better send for a doctor then. If he tries to tell the truth for once he'll strangle," suggested Selwyn whimsically to March.

"Spit it out then!" bullied Craven coarsely.

"Oh, Lard! Your roughness gives me the flutters, Sir James. I'm all of a tremble. Split me, I can't abide to be scolded! Er- Well, then, 'twas a Welsh widow they fought about-name of Gwynne and rich as Cr?sus-old enough to be a grandmother of either of 'em, begad! Volney had first claim and Montagu cut in; swore he'd marry her if she went off the hooks next minute. They fought and Montagu fell at the first shot. Next day the old Begum ran off with her footman. That's the story, you may depend on't. Lud, yes!"

"You may depend on its being wrong in every particular," agreed Lady Di coolly. "You'd better tell the story, 'Toinette. They'll have it a hundred times worse."

"Oh Lard! Gossip about my future husband. Not I!" giggled that lively young woman.

"Don't be a prude, miss!" commanded the Dowager Countess sharply. "'Tis to stifle false reports you tell it."

"Slidikins! An you put it as a duty," simpered the young beauty. "'Twould seem that-it would appear-the story goes that- Do I blush?-that Sir Robert- Oh, let Lady Di tell it!"

Lady Di came to scratch with the best will in the world.

"To correct a false impression then; for no other reason I tell it save to kill worse rumours. Everybody knows I hate scandal."

"'Slife, yes! Everybody knows that," agreed Craven, leering over at March.

"Sir Robert Volney then was much taken with a Scotch girl who was visiting in London, and of course she dreamed air castles and fell in love with him. 'Twas Joan and Darby all the livelong day, but alack! the maid discovered, as maids will, that Sir Robert's intentions were-not of the best, and straightway the blushing rose becomes a frigid icicle. Well, this Northern icicle was not to be melted, and Sir Robert was for trying the effect of a Surrey hothouse. In her brother's absence he had the maid abducted and carried to a house of his in town."

"'Slife! A story for a play. And what then?" cried Pink-and-White.

"Why then-enter Mr. Montagu with a 'Stay, villain!' It chanced that young Don Quixote was walking through the streets for the cooling of his blood mayhap, much overheated by reason of deep play. He saw, he followed, at a fitting time he broke into the apartment of the lady. Here Sir Robert discovered them--"

"The lady all unready, alackaday!" put in the Honourable Isabel, from behind a fan to hide imaginary blushes.

"Well, something easy of attire to say the least," admitted Lady Di placidly.

"I' faith then, Montagu must make a better lover than Sir Robert," cried March.

"Every lady to her taste. And later they fought on the way to Surrey. Both wounded, no graves needed. The girl nursed Montagu back to health, and they fled to France together," concluded the narrator.

"And the lady-is she such a beauty?" queried Beauclerc.

"Slidikins! I don't know. She must have points. No Scotch mawkin would draw Sir Robert's eye."

You are to imagine with what a burning face I sat listening to this devil's brew of small talk. What their eyes said to each other of innuendo,

what their lifted brows implied, and what they whispered behind white elegant hands, was more maddening than the open speech. For myself, I did not value the talk of the cats at one jack straw, but for this young girl sitting so still beside me- By Heaven, I dared not look at her. Nor did I know what to do, how to stop them without making the matter worse for her, and I continued to sit in an agony grizzling on the gridiron of their calumnies. Had they been talking lies outright it might have been easily borne, but there was enough of truth mixed in the gossip to burn the girl with the fires of shame.

At the touch of a hand I turned to look into a face grown white and chill, all the joy of life struck out of it. The girl's timorous eyes implored me to spare her more of this scene.

"Oh Kenneth, get me away from here. I will be dying of shame. Let us be going at once," she asked in a low cry.

"There is no way out except through the crowd of them. Will you dare make the attempt? Should I be recognized it may be worse for you."

"I am not fearing if you go with me. And at all events anything iss better than this."

There was a chance that we might pass through unobserved, and I took it; but I was white-hot with rage and I dare say my aggressive bearing bewrayed me. In threading our way to the door I brushed accidentally against Mistress Westerleigh. She drew aside haughtily, then gave a little scream of recognition.

"Kenn Montagu, of all men in the world-and turned Quaker, too. Gog's life, 'tis mine, 'tis mine! The hundred guineas are mine. I call you all to witness I have taken the desperate highwayman. 'Tall, strong, and extremely well-looking; carries himself like a gentleman.' This way, sir," she cried merrily, and laying hold of my coat-tails began to drag me toward the men.

There was a roar of laughter at this, and the pink-white youth lounged forward to offer me a hand of welcome I took pains not to see.

"Faith, the lady has the right of it, Montagu. That big body of yours is worth a hundred guineas now if it never was before," laughed Selwyn.

"Sorry to disappoint the lady, but unfortunately my business carries me in another direction," I said stiffly.

"But Lud! 'Tis not fair. You're mine. I took you, and I want the reward," cries the little lady with the sparkling eyes.

Aileen stood by my side like a queen cut out of marble, turning neither to the right nor to the left, her head poised regally on her fine shoulders as if she saw none in the room worthy a look.

"This must be the baggage about which they fought. Faith, as fine a piece as I have seen," said Craven to March in an audible aside, his bold eyes fixed insolently on the Highland girl.

Aileen heard him, and her face flamed. I set my teeth and swore to pay him for that some day, but I knew this to be no fitting time for a brawl. Despite me the fellow forced my hand. He planted himself squarely in our way and ogled my charge with impudent effrontery. Me he quite ignored, while his insulting eyes raked her fore and aft. My anger seethed, boiled over. Forward slid my foot behind his heel, my forearm under his chin. I threw my weight forward in a push. His head went back as though shot from a catapult, and next moment Sir James Craven measured his length on the ground. With the girl on my arm I pushed through the company to the door. They cackled after me like solan-geese, but I shut and locked the door in their faces and led Aileen to her room. She marched up the stairs like a goddess, beautiful in her anger as one could desire. The Gaelic heart is a good hater, and 'twas quite plain that Miss Macleod had inherited a capacity for anger.

"How dare they? How dare they? What have I done that they should talk so? There are three hundred claymores would be leaping from the scabbard for this. My grief! That they would talk so of my father's daughter."

She was superbly beautiful in her wrath. It was the black fury of the Highland loch in storm that leaped now from her eyes. Like a caged and wounded tigress she strode up and down the room, her hands clenched and her breast heaving, an impetuous flood of Gaelic pouring from her mouth.

For most strange logic commend me to a woman's reasoning, I had been in no way responsible for the scene down-stairs, but somehow she lumped me blindly with the others in her mind, at least so far as to punish me because I had seen and heard. Apparently 'twas enough that I was of their race and class, for when during a pause I slipped in my word of soothing explanation the uncorked vials of her rage showered down on me. Faith, I began to think that old Jack Falstaff had the right of it in his rating of discretion, and the maid appearing at that moment I showed a clean pair of heels and left her alone with her mistress.

As I was descending the stairs a flunky in the livery of the Westerleighs handed me a note. It was from Antoinette, and in a line requested me to meet her at once in the summer-house of the garden. In days past I had coquetted many an hour away with her. Indeed, years before we had been lovers in half-earnest boy and girl fashion, and after that the best of friends. Grimly I resolved to keep the appointment and to tell this little worldling some things she needed much to know.

I found her waiting. Her back was turned, and though she must have heard me coming she gave no sign. I was still angry at her for her share in what had just happened and I waited coldly for her to begin. She joined me in the eloquent silence of a Quaker meeting.

"Well, I am here," I said at last.

"Oh, it's you." She turned on me, mighty cold and haughty. "Sir, I take it as a great presumption that you dare to stay at the same inn with me after attempting to murder my husband that is to be."

"Murder!" I gasped, giving ground in dismay at this unexpected charge.

"Murder was the word I used, sir. Do you not like it?"

"'Twas a fair fight," I muttered.

"Was it not you that challenged? Did you not force it on him?"

"Yes, but--"

"And then you dare to come philandering here after me. Do you think I can change lovers as often as gloves, sir? Or as often as you?"

"Madam, I protest--"

"La! You protest! Did you not come here to see me? Answer me that, sir!" With an angry stamp of her foot.

"Yes, Mistress Westerleigh, your note--"

"And to philander? Do you deny it?"

"Deny it. Odzooks, yes! 'Tis the last thing I have in my mind," I rapped out mighty short. "I have done with women and their follies. I begin to see why men of sense prefer to keep their freedom."

"Do you, Kenn? And was the other lady so hard on you? Did she make you pay for our follies? Poor Kenn!" laughed my mocking tormentor with so sudden a change of front that I was quite nonplussed. "And did you think I did not know my rakehelly lover Sir Robert better than to blame you for his quarrels?"

I breathed freer. She had taken the wind out of my sails, for I had come purposing to give her a large piece of my mind. Divining my intention, womanlike she had created a diversion by carrying the war into the country of the enemy.

She looked winsome in the extreme. Little dimples ran in and out her peach-bloom cheeks. In her eyes danced a kind of innocent devilry, and the alluring mouth was the sweetest Cupid's bow imaginable. Laughter rippled over her face like the wind in golden grain. Mayhap my eyes told what I was thinking, for she asked in a pretty, audacious imitation of the Scotch dialect Aileen was supposed to speak,

"Am I no' bonny, Kenneth?"

"You are that, 'Toinette."

"But you love her better?" she said softly.

I told her yes.

"And yet--" She turned and began to pull a honeysuckle to pieces, pouting in the prettiest fashion conceivable.

The graceful curves of the lithe figure provoked me. There was a challenge in her manner, and my blood beat with a surge. I made a step or two toward her.

"And yet?" I repeated, over her shoulder.

One by one the petals floated away.

"There was a time--" She spoke so softly I had to bend over to hear.

I sighed. "A thousand years ago, 'Toinette."

"But love is eternal, and in eternity a thousand years are but as a day."

The long curving lashes were lifted for a moment, and the dancing brown eyes flashed into mine. While mine held them they began to dim. On my soul the little witch contrived to let the dew of tears glisten there. Now a woman's tears are just the one thing Kenneth Montagu cannot resist. After all I am not the first man that has come to make war and stayed to make love.

"'Toinette! 'Toinette!" I chided, resolution melting fast.

"And y'are commanded to love your neighbours, Kenn."

I vow she was the takingest madcap in all England, and not the worst heart neither. I am no Puritan, and youth has its day in which it will be served. My scruples took wing.

"Faith, one might travel far and not do better," I told her. "When the gods send their best to a man he were a sorry knave to complain."

Yet I stood helpless, in longing desire and yet afraid to dare. No nicety of conscience held me now, rather apprehension. I had not lived my one and twenty years without learning that a young woman may be free of speech and yet discreet of action, that alluring eyes are oft mismated with prim maiden conscience. 'Tis in the blood of some of them to throw down the gauntlet to a man's courage and then to trample on him for daring to accept the challenge.

Her eyes derided me. A scoffing smile crept into that mocking face of hers. No longer I shilly-shallied. She had brought me to dance, and she must pay the piper.

"Modesty is a sweet virtue, but it doesn't butter any bread," I cried gaily. "Egad, I embrace my temptation."

Which same I did, and the temptress too.

"Am I your temptation, Adam?" quoth the lady presently.

"I vow y'are the fairest enticement, Eve, that ever trod the earth since the days of the first Garden. For this heaven of your lips I'll pay any price in reason. A year in purgatory were cheap--"

I stopped, my florid eloquence nipped in bud, for the lady had suddenly begun to disengage herself. Her glance shot straight over my shoulder to the entrance of the summer-house. Divining the presence of an intruder, I turned.

Aileen was standing in the doorway looking at us with an acrid, scornful smile that went to my heart like a knife.

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