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   Chapter 5 THE BRIDGE BUILDERS

The Last of Their Race By Annie S. Swan Characters: 20956

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Kitty did not look so surprised as might have been expected. She walked with alacrity to the door in spite of Isla's rather eager protest.

"It's my belief, Isla, that you shut up the poor old General to prevent people from seeing him. I should not be at all surprised to find him in the dungeon-room," she said saucily over her shoulder as she disappeared round the sharp turning of the stair.

Isla reluctantly re-entered the drawing-room, fully aware of what was coming.

"Don't, Neil," she said, lifting a deprecating hand. "It has got to be done, so there isn't any use of talking about it."

"But, Isla!" he groaned, "it can't be done. Why, it will kill the General! Does he know what is in contemplation?"

"I have tried to tell him, but he can't understand," said Isla pitifully.

"He'll understand quickly enough when it comes to the bit--when you take him away from the old house. Why, it's the house he was born in, and he can't leave it now when he is old and frail. It's worth any sacrifice to let him have his last days in peace."

"It is; but I have made all the sacrifices possible, and have reached the end of my tether. If somebody could awaken the sense of sacrifice in Malcolm it would be different."

"Malcolm will be furious! Have you written and asked him, for after all he's the heir, you know, and a step--a big, drastic, horrible step like letting a property--can't be, or at least ought not to be, taken without consulting the heir."

Isla smiled drearily as she dropped into a chair.

Her old friend's anger was quite understandable and natural; but, oh, if people only knew how futile it all was!

"Listen, Neil. I thought of telling you the other day when we went to Glasgow together, but it was too new and raw then. Of course, that was the business I had to see Cattanach about. It is Malcolm who has caused this--who has wrought the red ruin of Achree."

Drummond was silent before the poignancy of her tone. Nor could he say that he was altogether astonished, since he knew Malcolm Mackinnon, and was fully aware of part at least of his unspeakable folly and misdoing.

"I may as well tell you now," went on Isla hotly. "Soon it will be the common property of the glen. Malcolm has had to send in his papers."

"My God, Isla, you don't say so!" said Drummond, and his fresh, kindly face grew a little white under the shock.

She nodded.

"Yes--and he owes over two thousand pounds to money-lenders, and our account is over-drawn at the bank. So now you know why the Americans must come to Achree."

She leaned back, and a small, very dismal smile just hovered about the corners of her sad, proud mouth.

Neil Drummond could scarcely have looked more thunderstruck and overwhelmed had the disaster come to his own Garrion, nor could he have felt it more acutely. He took a turn across the floor, and then he came and stood in front of her, his broad shoulders squared, a sudden look of strength and determination upon his kindly face.

"Why didn't you let us know before things got to this stage, Isla? What are friends for--that's what I'd like to know? Your silence just shows what a poor place, after all, any of us have in your estimation."

"No, no, Neil. But don't you see it was such a big, desperate, hopeless thing that nobody could give any help in the matter? And the dearer the friends are, the more impossible it would be to take money from them. You must understand that. You do understand it--only it pleases you to be denser than I have ever known you in the whole course of our acquaintance."

"The whole course of our acquaintance!" he repeated, half-eagerly, half-wistfully. "It's been spread over a pretty long period of years now, hasn't it, Isla?"

"Yes, but it looks like centuries. To-day I feel a century old myself."

"What you're needing, my dear, is somebody to take care of you," he said with a great gentleness. "I must speak again, though I promised to be silent till you gave me leave to speak. Won't you let me step into the breach, Isla? Marry me, and I'll do my best to smooth things over, and the General shall certainly not leave Achree. Garrion coffers are not so very full just at present, but I think there might be enough raised to prevent that unthinkable catastrophe."

She shook her head.

"I can't, Neil, I can't! Don't say another word about it."

"I'm not asking anything," he said with the humbleness born of a really unselfish love--"only the right to take care of you and shield you and, if need be, fight for you. Malcolm is your brother, Isla, but I'd like to get into grips with him just once to punish him for all these lines that have come on your dear face through him. And if he comes back to the glen I'll tell him what I think of him, even if it should be the last word I speak in this world!"

"It is easier to have one's men folk killed in wars, Neil," she said in a low voice. "Last week Lady Eden was bewailing Archie's death, even though she had his little V.C. on the table beside her. I could have cried out to her to go down on her knees and thank God because he is safe from all hurt and evil. She does not begin to know the meaning of sorrow, as we know it here. I have only one consolation--that my father will never now be able to grasp the real meaning of what has happened. You'll have to help me to keep it from him--to talk and to act as if nothing out of the common had occurred; and you must promise to come and to bring Kitty to see us at Creagh."

"At Creagh!" cried Drummond aghast. "You don't mean to say that you are going to bury yourselves in that God-forsaken hole? Oh, my dear, Garrion may be bad, but at least it is get-at-able. Shut up in Creagh, with the General and with Malcolm when he comes home!--it will be the death of you, Isla."

"No, no, I take a lot of killing. Do be a bit more cheerful, Neil. I'm sure you must have thought the Americans quite nice people. He is charming, I think. He builds bridges in America, and Cattanach says that he is a man of genius."

"He may build what he likes, but if he comes to Achree, whatever the price he pays, he commits the unpardonable sin," he said sourly. "Don't let us talk about him. I'm waiting for an answer to my question. It isn't much I ask, Isla. I promise not to molest you or to beg for your love, though I'll do my best to win it. Why is it that you won't believe in me?"

"Oh, I do, Neil. It is because I like you so much that I won't marry you," she answered frankly, but a little wearily. "You deserve something so much better than a half-hearted wife."

"I'd rather have the half or the quarter of you than the whole of any other woman," he made answer in the reckless way of the lover. "At least, promise me that if you should change your mind, that if things should get desperate, you'll come to me? A word will be enough, Isla--even a look. I'll fly to your bidding on the wings of the wind."

"Oh, Neil, I wish that all this eloquence and this devotion could be given to a better woman----"

"She doesn't exist," put in the lover stoutly. "Now, tell me about Malcolm. What is the meaning of this horrible thing that has happened, and who told you?"

"He told me himself in last week's letter. Oh, yes--he minds, of course, but he thinks he has been unjustly treated. Somebody is always treating Malcolm unjustly, you know; and, whatever happens, it is always another person's fault."

"But it must be very serious, my dear. Has there been any other communication--anything from his Colonel, or the War Office for the General?"

"No--nothing; and when anything comes I shall intercept it," she replied without the smallest hesitation. "What is concerning me most is that, in about three weeks' time, Malcolm will be at home, loafing about idle in the glen, and I shall never know a moment's ease of mind. That's the redeeming feature of Creagh--it's at least five miles from everywhere. But, of course, he can't be permitted to loaf about. He must find some occupation. I wonder----"

She stopped there, however, and Neil was left to conjecture what it was that she wondered. He would not have been so well pleased had he known that her thoughts had flown with a curious sense of restfulness and hope to the man who had just left them. The hated man had said that the business of his life was to demolish difficulties and to build bridges where none had been before. Could he--or would he--undertake the problem of Malcolm's life?

Kitty returned while that question was still lingering in Isla's mind, and, after a little more desultory talk, the brother and sister took their departure.

"Tell Kitty on the way home, Neil," whispered Isla as she bade him good-bye, her fingers aching under his strong, almost painful, pressure which was intended to convey all the thoughts of which his heart was full.

"Give Aunt Betty my love, and tell her that I will pay her a visit before I go to Creagh," she added. "Yes, of course, tell her about Malcolm too, but don't say too much about it, and, of course, outside Garrion----"

She laid a significant finger on her lip.

Neil nodded, and, with gloom sitting on his brow, ascended to his high perch on the dogcart and tucked the rug about his sister's knees.

The next three weeks passed in a whirl of business for Isla Mackinnon.

The very next morning after the visit of the Americans to Achree she had Jimmy Forbes up from Lochearn to drive her to Creagh. The sun was shining so brightly and the air was so soft and balmy that all of a sudden she decided that the drive might do her father good.

He had only just come down from his bedroom and was standing in the doorway, enjoying the air, when the trap drove up, and Isla came down the stairs.

"Where are you for this morning, my dear?"

"I'm going to Creagh. Will you go with me, dear? I have some particular business to do at Creagh this morning, and it's so deliciously sunny and warm and I think the drive would do you good."

"Yes, I'd like to go," said the old man with the wistful pleasure of the child, at the same time taking a critical look at the stout roan cob that had come up from the hotel stable, well and fit for the rough road over Creagh moor.

It did not take Isla and Diarmid long to wrap the General up, and off they went through the pleasant spring sunshine, mounting slowly all the time until they reached the broad plateau of the moor of Creagh, which was the o

ne valuable asset of Achree and constituted its only claim to the dignity of being a sporting estate.

The Lodge stood at the far angle of the moor, about a mile across from the road--a small, bare, ugly house which made no pretence to being anything more than a shelter for sportsmen. It was well protected by a clump of sturdy fir trees, and it had even a fertile bit of garden ground behind, with a small glass-house, and excellent stables. It was furnished throughout, and it was in the care of Margaret Maclaren, an old pensioner of Achree and widow of a former keeper.

She was a faithful servant who attended well to her duties whether her employers were there to see her or not, and she was not at all put out by the unexpected arrival of the trap from Achree.

Bathed in the glorious noon sunshine, the place looked its best, and even the interior did not seem at all amiss. All the windows were open to the sun, and Isla's sharp eyes noted the complete absence of damp, which was her chief enemy at Achree.

"Father, isn't it pretty here?" she asked the General as they stood for a moment in the porch before entering the house. "I should like to come up and live the whole summer here."

"It would not be amiss in the summer, child. Many a happy day have I spent in Creagh and many a jolly night."

She led him into the dining-room--a goodly-sized square room, not unhandsomely furnished in oak, the carpet rolled up in the middle of the floor, and faded chintz covers over the leather chairs.

The open casement windows commanded a splendid and uninterrupted view of the whole moor which, even in its bareness and in the wildness of the winter, had a certain rugged beauty of its own. A low hill rose immediately behind the house, from which a glorious prospect of the whole valley of the Earn could be seen, with Ben Voirlich rising like a buttress behind all the lesser hills in the valley below.

The air was like wine, and Isla's spirits rose as she grasped the possibilities of the simpler life there, in that remote lodge in a wilderness.

She quickly interviewed Margaret Maclaren, and in her company she made a rapid survey of the dismantled house, the result of which showed her that a very few days would suffice to put it in order for their reception.

"We have let Achree for the season, Margaret," she said in the most matter-of-fact voice she could command, "and the new tenants want to come in at Easter. You will thoroughly air and fire all the house, but more especially my father's room above the dining-room. These two rooms will be most exclusively his. We shall eat in the little room at the back, while he has this for his library and sitting-room."

"Yes, Miss Isla, and hoo mony will come up from Achree--of the servants, I mean?"

"Only Diarmid, Margaret. You and he must just manage. I will help all I can. If we find it too much, your niece, Annie Chisholm, could be got. Perhaps this will be necessary when we have Mr. Malcolm at home. Yes--he is coming soon, and he will be here with us for a few weeks at least."

Whatever secret wonder may have been in the soul of Margaret Maclaren, she suffered none of it to be expressed on her face.

Isla was much pleased with her visit and with the possibilities of the house, part of which she had forgotten. She saw that her father, too, was pleased. He enjoyed his walk about the place and constantly spoke of the beautiful view from the front of the house across the moor and down to Glenogle.

"I'll take the reins down, Jamie," said Isla to the hotel groom.

When they were fairly out on the road she turned rather anxiously to her father, talking to him in a low voice which there was no possible chance of Jamie overhearing as he was rather deaf at the best of times, and was almost entirely devoid of curiosity--a trait in his character worth mentioning.

"Father, I want to tell you something. Will you mind very much if we come up to Creagh soon for the whole summer?"

"No, I think I should like it," he answered, unexpectedly. "But you would find it very dull, wouldn't you?"

"I'm never dull anywhere. You saw the folk who came yesterday--the Americans, didn't you? I saw Mr. Rosmead talking to you at the shrubbery."

"I saw them--yes. Who were they and what brought them to Achree? I don't remember having seen him before."

"You haven't seen him before. He's a stranger--a rich American, and I have let Achree to him for six months."

Her hand trembled a little on the reins, and she half-expected either a petulant outburst or some other demonstration of feeling that would vex and alarm her soul and would harm the old man. But when, made anxious by his silence, she turned to look at him, his face only wore the perplexed expression of a child's.

"I don't know for what reason you want to let the place, Isla, or why anybody should wish to take it. But have it your own way. I dare say we could be very comfortable in Creagh unless, indeed, we have a wet summer. Then we would get very sick of it. I suppose the new folk would be willing to go out if we found it not possible to live up here."

"They would be perfectly reasonable, I'm sure, father," said Isla.

Her relief was so great that her features visibly relaxed, and her eyes began to shine. She was getting on famously. If only the latter part of the sad and sorry business should prove as easy to arrange as the first had been--why, then, perhaps she had been torturing herself needlessly. She had scarcely had a good night's rest since the arrival of the Indian mail, and the strain was beginning to tell on her.

"Well, I think I'll get you settled in Creagh comfortably with Diarmid as soon as possible. Then, after you are feeling quite at home, I think I shall go to Plymouth to meet Malcolm's boat. I haven't had a holiday for four years, father, and in the letter I had from Aunt Jean the other day she said they were all going up from Barras this week to Belgrave Square. So I'll take a few days of London dissipation before I meet Malcolm."

The old man made no demur. So great were his faith and his trust in Isla that he seldom questioned any of her doings.

During that week the bargain was concluded with the Rosmeads by Mr. Cattanach, after which a small correspondence began between Isla and Rosmead concerning certain minor repairs in the Castle that he wished to execute at his own expense.

A few days before they removed to Creagh he came down himself, ostensibly for the purpose of explaining to her that what he wished to effect was only a few small improvements with a view to making the home more comfortable for his mother.

Isla at first had resented the idea. Her Highland pride even got the length of tempting her to write and tell the man that he could either take the house as it was or leave it. But she could not afford to do that, so she relieved her feelings by writing the letter and then consigning it to the fire.

It was, however, a rather subdued and coldly aggressive Isla who met him on the occasion of his coming to pay his second call. But when she saw him, she was ashamed that she had written that letter and was glad that she had had the sense to burn it.

"I thought that I had better come instead of writing in reply to your last letter, Miss Mackinnon," he said presently. "We were getting adrift from the main issue. I want to explain that I don't propose to make any structural alterations on the house. The stove that I wrote about is an American invention for the heating of unsatisfactory country houses where, for some reason or other, the ordinary heating is difficult to arrange. It will greatly add to my mother's comfort while she is here, and it can be taken away when we leave. It will not harm the house but, on the contrary, will benefit it by drying it up. I think you mentioned to my sister that it was a little damp."

"It is very damp in parts," said Isla stoutly. "I am not seeking to deny it. I am sorry I wrote like that about the stove. You see," she added with her wandering smile which to him was wholly pathetic, "I am new to the business of house-letting, and you must be patient with me."

Her brief anger and irritation vanished under his clear, kind gaze, and the immensity of comfort and strength that seemed to be created by his very presence.

"You may trust me to do nothing which would alter the house out of your recognition," he said gently. "My mother is an old lady, and her chest is weak. It is absolutely necessary that she be kept warm and that no damp should be allowed to come near her. We are charmed with the house and with the kindness which you showed to us that day we came. My sister has never ceased to talk about it, and my mother is looking forward very much to making your acquaintance."

"Thank you, but at the moor of Creagh we shall be very much out of the way," said Isla softly.

"A quick and strong car annihilates distance," he reminded her.

But she made a quick little gesture of dissent.

"I think the moor of silence would beat it," she answered. "Well, I am taking my father up to Creagh next Monday, and when I have settled him in it I am going to London for a few days. The house will be quite empty and ready for you from next Monday, and I hope that you will not find it disappointing. At least I haven't embroidered any of the facts."

"You are going to London?" he said, as if surprised.

"Yes, I have to meet my brother's boat at Plymouth. He is returning from India."

"A soldier?" he ventured to ask, remembering the General's rank and wondering at the dull flush that rose to her face.

"Yes. But I think he may leave the Army for good. My father's health is so very frail. Nothing can be settled, however, till my brother comes home," she answered, hating herself for the prevarication that her clear conscience told her was nothing short of a lie.

But the pride in her burned high, and she would not demean herself to this man who, with all his pleasant ways and curious suggestion of power and strength, was only a rich, new-made American, who could never be expected to understand any of the feelings that lay deep in the heart of a Mackinnon of Achree.

As for Rosmead, he only smiled inwardly, attracted by her moods, which were as changeful as the face of Loch Earn. He was a builder of bridges, and the conquering of obstacles was, as he had told her, his business.

He could bide his time.

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