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   Chapter 4 THE AMERICANS

The Last of Their Race By Annie S. Swan Characters: 19904

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Did you ever see such a shabby room, Peter? It positively reeks of poverty."

Thus did Sadie Rosmead deliver herself to her brother after the drawing-room door had been shut upon them at Achree, and Diarmid had gone to seek his mistress.

On the Monday following Isla's visit to Glasgow, and, in consequence of a letter from Cattanach, the Rosmeads had made a hurried journey out to Glenogle for the purpose of making acquaintance with the interior of the house that they so much admired, and, if possible, of coming to terms with its owners.

They were a handsome pair. Rosmead himself, a man of about thirty-five, well, but quietly, dressed, and carrying his firmly-knit figure with conscious ease and strength, had a strong, fine face, lit by pleasant grey eyes that gave a very fair index to his character. He was a man who, by his own effort, by the sheer force of his ability, which, in his own domain amounted to genius, had achieved a distinction and a success manifest in his very bearing.

Once seen, Peter Rosmead would not be readily forgotten. He was a man who could not be in any company without leaving the mark of his personality upon it.

His sister was small, but elegant; dressed with conspicuous plainness, but in a style which has to be paid for with considerable cheques. The feature of her costume was undoubtedly her veil, which, when worn by a really elegant American woman such as Sadie Rosmead certainly was, becomes a thing of distinction. It was only a long width of blue chiffon attached to a small felt hat of the same hue, but it made a most becoming setting to her dark, piquant face.

"Yes--it positively reeks of poverty. Look at the darn in the carpet, Peter!" she said severely. "This is a house of makeshifts, but it's decent poverty, and I've never seen anything so clean in the whole of my life. It would charm mother. How I wish she could have come to-day!"

Still Peter did not answer. There was something about the room which pained him, but he could not have explained what it was. It seemed to him indecent that two strangers, such as they were, should have come to view the poverty of the land. Cattanach had told Rosmead several things that he had not mentioned to any of his women folks; therefore, he was very eager and interested to see Miss Mackinnon.

Sadie babbled on.

"If it were not so clean it would be impossible. But there are some awfully pretty things. Look at that bit of tapestry on the end wall and at that coat of arms worked on the banner screen. It's just too sweet for anything. Now, what are you looking at, Peter?--oh, the miniatures! Anything good?"

There was a small collection on the mantelpiece, framed in ebony and standing on little brass tripods--very exquisite things in their way, and part of the few remaining treasures of Achree. Rosmead was studying them intently, and his sister was examining with interest the various bits of old needlework in the room, when the door was opened by rather a quick, nervous hand, and some one came in.

Rosmead turned back from the mantelpiece, and Sadie dropped the cushion with the peacock sewn upon its cover, and turned with a charming smile.

"Don't be angry, Miss Mackinnon. We are not sampling anything, but we are Americans--don't you know--and everything in this lovely old house appeals to us. You are Miss Mackinnon, aren't you? I'm Sadie Rosmead, and this is my brother Peter."

It was charmingly done, and it brought a slight smile, in spite of herself, to Isla's parted lips. She had been walking very fast, and the colour was high in her cheek. Her jacket was thrown back to show the neat flannel shirt belted trimly to her waist, and the black tie held in its place by the silver brooch, curiously wrought and displaying the arms of the Mackinnons, the same design being repeated in the buckle of her belt.

"I am so sorry you have been kept waiting. I was at the other side of the wood, seeing a sick woman. How-do-you-do?"

She shook hands with Sadie, but it was at the brother that she looked.

And she was well pleased with what she saw. She was not concerned at all about the impression she might be making on them. The only thing that mattered was that the people who were coming to Achree should not be objectionable.

Just for a moment she had been a trifle dismayed by Miss Rosmead's very obvious nationality--by the twang in her voice and by the familiarity of her manner. Isla's own manner inclined to hauteur. She fought against it, for the person who has goods to sell cannot afford to be too high and mighty in procedure. Yet she carried herself, in spite of her efforts to the contrary, like one who had a favour to bestow.

An intensely good-natured person, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, Sadie Rosmead did not even notice this characteristic manner, but not a shade of it was lost on Rosmead himself. It did not, however, either irritate or repel him. He had an immense gift of understanding, and he knew what this interview meant to the girl before them, whose face, now that the little flush of excitement had died from it, was pale, and even a little haggard.

"I am sorry you did not let me know, so that you could have been met at the station and could have come to luncheon. Have you had any?"

"Oh, yes," answered Sadie, "a very good snack at the station buffet at Glasgow, hadn't we, Peter? We should like a cup of tea perhaps, by and by, after we have seen the house. I have heard of your Scotch scones and butter and honey. They have very good imitations of them at the hotels, but we've been told--haven't we, Hylton?--that they don't begin to taste like the real thing."

Isla noticed the change of name, and she decided that the more dignified one suited the brother better. "Peter" was certainly ridiculous, and yet it had a kindly human sound and she preferred to think of him as kindly to thinking of him as dignified at the moment. Achree so much needed kindness, and she--poor girl!--more than all, though she was hardly conscious of her own need.

Rosmead was fully conscious of it. He had never in the whole course of his experience met with anything that touched or appealed to him more than the sight of this tall, slight girl upon whose shoulders rested what made her life a burden--the whole responsibility of the house of her fathers. Cattanach, a discerning man, had told him just sufficient to arouse his compassionate interest. Though he spoke so little, Isla felt comforted by his presence. The thing that had been a nightmare resolved itself, under his kindly touch, into something that might not only be possible, but might also prove good.

This man, of alien race though he was, would never harry Achree, nor would he bring to it strange new ways of life and thought. He looked strong, generous, and simple--as the truly strong always are.

While this subtle bond was being established between these two thus so strangely brought together, Sadie did the talking.

"Yes, we would like to see the house--every bit of it--but not to poke. Only, however, if it is convenient and only what you are willing to show--eh, Peter? We don't want to rush Miss Mackinnon, and we can easily come out another day and bring Vivien."

"Vivien is your sister?" said Isla inquiringly, as she laid her jacket down on the end of the high-backed old sofa.

Sadie nodded.

"She had a headache. She is not so very strong, and she can't stand racket. I'm the untirable, uncrushable, wholly inextinguishable member of the family. But not a bad sort--eh, Peter?"

Peter indulgently smiled.

"I hope General Mackinnon is quite well?" he inquired. "I have heard from Mr. Cattanach that his health has not been good of late."

"No--he is not so very strong. To-day, because it felt really like spring, he has gone for a little walk. I was with him. But, yes--he is quite all right. One of the men is coming back with him. If you don't mind, will you come and see the library before he returns? It is the room he sits in chiefly, and I am afraid it will be a little difficult for him to understand what you are doing in it if he should see you there. We can come back here, of course, for tea."

She led the way down the winding stair and across the flagged hall, which Sadie mutely pointed out to her brother as they silently followed their guide. All the windows in the library were open, and the cool, fresh air met them on the threshold. Again the same note of shabbiness and painful care was evident, but the room was well-furnished with books, which completely lined the walls.

"I suppose they are centuries old," said Sadie in an awe-struck whisper. "There--Peter, surely now you will be able to read your fill."

"Some of them are very old, I believe, and there are first editions among them," answered Isla, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if unaware that she talked of treasures which could be exchanged for gold. "You see this is quite a good room, and everyone likes the shape of it. It is so warm in winter, and so cool in summer."

It was duly admired, and they made their way from it again to the dining-room. They also took a quick glance at the servants' premises, where Sadie's sharp eyes took in most of the details.

"Now--upstairs," said Isla with evident relief. "And on the first landing, where the little door opens, just here is the dungeon-room. It has a trap-door and a stair going right down from it."

Sadie's eyes grew positively wide with excitement.

"A dungeon-room," she repeated again, in an awe-stricken whisper. "And where does this stair lead to? Can anyone go down?"

"Oh, yes. It leads to the dungeon, and there used to be--about the fourteenth century--a passage from it going both ways, one to Killin and down to the Earn, but it has not been opened for hundreds of years."

"Do you hear that, Hylton Rosmead? The fourteenth century! Where were we then? How do you

see down?"

"If Mr. Rosmead will be so kind----"

She stooped to pull back the faded strip of home-made carpet, and so revealed the rusty hinges set level with the floor.

Rosmead stooped also and, with one swing of his strong arm, he raised the heavy door, so that they could look into the depths beneath. A curious odour met them, and Sadie, her imagination now wrought to a high pitch, fancied she heard mysterious sounds ascending from below.

"I should love to go down, but we can explore later when we come to live here. Fancy a place like this right in the middle of one's house and stairs and passages leading all over the country! It's positively creepy, but most fascinating. And a room with a bed in it too! I wonder whether I should get any sleep in it if I took it for my own?"

"It is rather small, isn't it?" said Isla with a smile. "It was used as a sentinel's or guard's room chiefly in the old days, I fancy. Now, will you come up and see the bedrooms?"

"I'll take a turn outside if I may," said Rosmead. "My sister will accompany you, Miss Mackinnon. I'm perfectly satisfied with what I have seen."

"Can you find your way? There are two staircases, but you can get out by either," said Isla, and they stood just a moment on the narrow landing till Rosmead had found his way out.

He passed out into the mellow sunshine of the afternoon with a sense of relief. The old house saddened him. It seemed to be peopled with dead hopes and with old memories and to have no kinship with the warm and happy life of men.

As he stepped on the gravel the sound of wheels broke the stillness, and a dogcart, in which was a beautiful, high-stepping chestnut horse, was rapidly driven up to the door. It contained two persons--a man and a woman, both young--who had evidently come to pay a call at Achree.

Raising his hat slightly, he turned aside to walk round by the gable-end of the house in order to see it from the back.

Just beyond the rolled gravel he came upon another pathetic sight--the old General in his Inverness cloak and with his bonnet on his thin white hair, leaning heavily on his stick and watching the antics of a little brown dog in front of a rabbit-hole. He was quite alone; and Rosmead, in whom reverence for the old was a passion as well as a virtue, involuntarily took off his hat.

"Come back, you little vixen!" the old man called with a little chuckle to the brown dog.

And, just at the moment, Janet, conscious of the approach of a stranger, gave a short, sharp bark and ran back.

The General looked round and, seeing the stranger, took his bonnet from his head. Rosmead had then no alternative but to introduce himself.

"My name is Rosmead, sir. I am here owing to correspondence with Mr. Cattanach."

"Cattanach? Oh, yes--very decent fellow, Cattanach, but not a good writer. Have you seen my daughter, and has your horse been put up?" he said with all the fine dignity of the hospitable old laird, always ready to welcome the stranger within his gates.

"We have only a hired trap, and it is waiting in the stable-yard. We have to get back to catch the four-thirty train."

"Oh, yes. Well, you will see my daughter, and you will at least have some tea before you go away. Can I direct you back to the house? I was taking my walk in the sun. I am not so strong as I was, and I have to choose my days. That is what we have to come to, sir,--we choose our days, when they are not chosen for us. Well, if you can find your way back to the house, I shall continue my walk."

He touched his bonnet and turned away, as if he had dismissed the man and the incident from his mental vision.

Rosmead immediately grasped the whole facts. He saw that the old man was wholly detached from the affairs of life, and more and more his heart ached with compassion for Isla Mackinnon. He walked right round the house, admiring its outline, even the huddled little towers touching his fancy, and he made up his mind on the spot that this should be his future dwelling-place. No matter what should be the price, he would pay it, because something told him that here was a place in which his money could be of use.

There was something deeper, however--the conviction that destiny had willed it that his life was somehow to be bound up with this old house and its inmates. The idea appealed to him and gave him a quickened interest in the place.

When he returned to the drawing-room in about ten minutes' time he found that it now contained four persons--his sister and their hostess and the two who had arrived to call.

"This is Mr. Rosmead, Kitty," said Isla, in whose face the pink spot of excitement burned again. "Miss Drummond, Mr. Neil Drummond, Mr. Rosmead."

Rosmead gravely saluted, but though Kitty beamed upon the handsome stranger, Neil was hostile. His face positively gloomed, and he had hardly a word to say.

His manners did not show to advantage that day. He seemed a boor beside the smooth, polished man of the world that Rosmead, by contrast, appeared. When tea was brought, it was Rosmead who established himself by the table, leaving his sister to chatter to the Drummonds. He did this of a set purpose, because he wished to say a word in Isla's private ear, and there did not seem to be any opportunity--unless he made one--of saying it.

"Miss Mackinnon, Mr. Cattanach has told you that we are anxious to get settled soon on account of my mother's health. Do you think you could give me a definite answer as to what you intend to do regarding the letting of the house to-day?"

"Yes, easily. If you care for it, now you have seen it, please take it," she answered without looking up.

The tone of her voice slightly disconcerted him, because he knew that her depth of feeling must be occasioning her the greatest pain.

"We would not hurry you--or seem to embarrass you in any way. My mother is the kindest and most reasonable of women, and I hope that you will permit her to know you if she comes to Achree. Are you likely to stay in the neighbourhood?"

"Yes," she answered, and her breath came a little faster. "We are going to the lodge at Creagh, at the other side of the moor."

The information seemed to please him.

"Then, perhaps you will write to Mr. Cattanach when your arrangements are made."

"Yes, I will do so, but there is something I must say first. I tried to say it to your sister, but somehow I could not," she said, still hurriedly and with her eyes on her tray. "I am sure that you will find that the house needs many things. We have been so poor that it has not been replenished, as it would have been in different circumstances. That must be taken into consideration in settling the question of the rent to be paid. I will tell Mr. Cattanach so. I hope I make myself plain?" she said, lifting her eyes to his face when he gave her no answer. "I am saying, Mr. Rosmead, that we can't spend any money on the house, and that whatever you find it lacks you will supply for yourselves."

"I quite understand that. Pray, don't speak of it--it is not worth mentioning. I understand that it is a sacrifice for you to let us have the house at all. I wish I did not realize that so keenly."

She looked at him again, and the expression in her eyes wholly changed. The child-look came back--the look of trust, of ingenuousness, of innocent sweetness, and it moved Rosmead profoundly. A very reticent, self-contained, observant man, he was interested and drawn by the tragedy, the unfathomable sadness of this girl's life. To possess Achree, and thus to come within sight and possible touch of Isla Mackinnon, had suddenly become to him a matter of personal moment.

But it was not so with Isla; she liked him; she was grateful to him for his reticence and his consideration, but to her he was simply the man who wanted Achree, and for whom they must leave it.

"You are very kind, but in a matter of this kind business must be the basis," she said presently, with a sudden return of her original hauteur. "I shall write to Mr. Cattanach to-night, and ask him to arrange things. Our removal to Creagh is only a matter of two or three days for the gathering together of our few personal belongings--that is all. I hope there will not be any difficulties in the way, and that you will be able to come to Achree, for your mother's sake, at the time you wish."

His next words arrested her attention, in spite of herself.

"If there are difficulties I shall do my best to overcome them. That has been the business of my life up till now."

"How do you mean?" she asked with an involuntary interest.

"I am a builder of bridges," he answered.

At this moment the Laird of Garrion, glowering like his own moor in a snell winter day, came stalking across the room, his step and his manner indicating that he considered that the stranger had already presumed too much.

Rosmead, in no way perturbed, drew out his watch.

"Sadie, it's time we went if we are to catch that train," he said to his sister, who, deep in girlish talk with Kitty Drummond, rose reluctantly.

The good-byes were quickly made, and, though her more kindly impulses prompted Isla to go down and speed the parting guests, she bade them good-bye at the drawing-room door with the slightest suggestion of stiffness, and left Diarmid to show them out.

"Who are these people, Isla?" asked Drummond impetuously the moment the door closed. "He's insufferable. Whence these airs of his? Who is he?"

"A rich American, and they are likely to take Achree for six months, or perhaps a year," answered Isla quietly, realizing that the thing could not be any longer hid.

Kitty gave a little exclamation of dismay, but on Drummond's face the scowl rose again.

"Let Achree! Heaven forbid! Isla, you won't do it. It's unthinkable--it's--it's, I want to say it, only I mustn't. Kitty, go down and find the General. I must speak to Isla alone."

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