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The Last of Their Race By Annie S. Swan Characters: 20193

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

When the "Jumna," an old troopship which had been fitted out for second-rate traffic from India, slowly approached her mooring in Plymouth Dock, Malcolm Mackinnon, smoking at the rail, ran his eyes along the waiting queue of expectant people at the landing-stage without the remotest expectation of seeing anybody belonging to him there. He knew the limitations of life in Glenogle, and how very little journeying to and fro on the face of the earth fell to the inmates of Achree.

He did not resemble the Mackinnons in appearance. He was short and thick-set, with his head set squarely on his shoulders, and he had a ruddy, sun-burned face, a pair of light blue eyes, a shifty mouth, and hair with more than a touch of red in it. He was very like his mother who had wrought confusion in Achree.

Isla, of course, did not know the full tragedy of her father's sad married life. Only she did know that she had been often impressed with the feeling and conviction that Malcolm was alien to Achree.

He might have been a changeling, so much did he differ in everything from any Mackinnon among them. Yet he had looks of a kind and a certain way with him which won people and made them, even against their better judgment, forgive him. This is a dangerous possession for a man who is not endowed with a very high sense of responsibility. It may at once be said that on more than one occasion Malcolm Mackinnon had traded on this happy-go-lucky, winning way of his.

When he saw Isla waving to him he gave a great start of surprise, which was almost chagrin. He had made several appointments in London, where he had intended to spend a few pleasant days before his liberty should be curtailed at Achree. His sister's presence would make these days difficult, if not impossible. Then the wild thought flashed through him that perhaps it meant that something had happened to his father. A month is a long time in a frail old man's life, and no one knew what a day might bring forth.

But Isla was not in mourning, and her face was as serene as usual. It would be unjust to say that he wished for his father's death, but certainly had he arrived in Scotland to find himself Laird of Achree, instead of merely heir to it, it would have made a material difference to his immediate comfort as well as to his prospects. For his affairs were in a tangle from which he did not know how he was going to extricate himself.

But now he had to meet the first stage in the coming of the inevitable Nemesis in the shape of Isla, whose frank tongue he knew of yore. He was fond of her in a way, and admired her greatly. He even wondered what all the men were thinking of that she remained unmarried at twenty-five. When he got nearer to her he saw that she had aged but little, while he himself had grown fat and gross, as will a man of his build who is fond of drink and of good living.

"Isla, how awfully good of you to do this! I never expected to see you or any of our ilk here," he exclaimed in greeting. "How on earth did you manage it, and how is the old man?"

"Father is very well. I thought I had better come to meet you, because there are heaps of things to explain; and besides, I felt that I wanted just a few days' change. I'm at Belgrave Square."

His face immediately fell. He did not like his Barras cousins, nor did they like him. Nay, they highly disapproved of him and all his works, and it was, he felt, positively cruel of Isla to have laid him open to the cross-questioning of the whole clan at the very moment of his arrival in England.

"In the circumstances you might have spared me that lot, Isla," he said with the gloom on his face that she remembered so well. "I won't go to Belgrave Square--so there!" he added positively. "There is a small cheap hotel off the Strand will do me--that is, if I don't go up north to-night."

"I haven't told them anything," said Isla quietly. "They only know that you are coming home, and, fortunately for me, they don't seem a bit curious. Aunt Jean was the only one who remarked about your getting leave so soon again. You can please yourself about going to the little hotel to sleep, but I promised that you should dine at Belgrave Square to-night."

"Oh, well, if they don't know anything and won't ask awkward questions," he said with a breath of relief, "I don't mind going."

"I had some difficulty in preventing Marjorie and Sheila from coming down. If they hadn't had a fitting for a Court frock they would have insisted on it. Sheila is going to be presented at the next drawing-room--on 7 May."

"Oh!" said Malcolm, but his interest was of languid order. "Well, I'd better see about my stuff. I haven't much. I sold out all I could before I left. There are always hard-up beggars in the regiment willing to buy, and I knew I shouldn't want much in the glen."

Again he spoke with airy inconsequence, as if nothing was of any great importance. Isla was quite conscious of a vivid and growing resentment. As she watched his strong, well-knit figure busy among the few traps which he was instructing one of the porters to collect, she wondered how he dared to be so regardless as he was. A grown man with a man's strength and ability of a kind--yet nothing but a burden and a care to other folks, to frail folks like an old man and a young woman. The inequality and injustice of it imparted a most unusual hardness to her face. She was hardly disappointed, however, because Malcolm had always held his sins of omission and commission lightly and feared only their consequences.

But in his heart of hearts he did feel his latest disgrace. A certain dogged dourness, however, would not permit him to show it.

After his meagre baggage had been collected there was still no sign of the boat-train leaving, so they paced the platform from end to end, talking together in low, eager tones, indicative of the deep interest of the subject under discussion.

"How long do you intend to stop in London?" he asked.

"I only came down to meet you. I thought we might go home on Friday."

"Oh well, if you like," he said, but she saw his face fall.

"I don't like to leave father any longer. He was very good about my coming, and Kitty Drummond was to go over to Creagh every day while I am away."

"To Creagh, you say! Who's there now, then?"

"We are. I have let Achree to some rich Americans, and they went into residence yesterday, I believe, or at least partly. They are doing a lot to the house, but their tenancy dates from Easter."

Malcolm stood still on the wooden pavement and stared at her in genuine dismay.

"You've let Achree, you say! In Heaven's name what for, and who gave you leave?"

"Nobody gave me leave. I took it; and you are the last person who ought to ask why," she made answer rather passionately.

"But--but--" he stuttered, "whatever did the governor say?"

"He said very little one way or other. I'm not even sure if he grasped the fact. But at least he was quite pleased to go to Creagh."

"To Creagh--to that little one-horse place! Do you mean to say that you propose to live there, then?"

"We are living there," she answered steadily.

"And you did this on your own, Isla? Well, I think you had a jolly good cheek. The decent thing would have been to wait till I came home at least. You won't deny, surely, that I have a say in it."

"I don't know about the say. What I did know was that if you came home the bargain would probably never have been concluded."

"But what was it for, anyway?"

She turned her small proud head to him, and her clear eyes flashed.

"Malcolm, I do really wonder what you are made of."

"Flesh and blood like other folks, and I can't get away from this. How much are they paying?"

"Five hundred a year with the shooting, and we propose to live on three and to lay bye the other two to help to pay off those terrible obligations you spoke of in your letter, which has kept me awake more or less since ever it came."

He laughed airily.

"Now that's just like a woman--to imagine that the practice of small and most beastly uncomfortable economies could do any good! Have you reckoned out that it will take ten years at the rate you speak of to get me clear? Most of us will be dead by that time."

"The train is going, thank God," said Isla in a high, clear, outraged voice. "Let us get in. I don't want to talk any more to you, Malcolm--either now or at any other time. You--you are outside the pale."

"Now take it easy, old girl. I made a clean breast of it all just to show you that I was really penitent; and of course I wasn't to blame for getting chucked. Any fool in the Thirty-fifth will tell you that. But this little attempt to pull the financial wires does strike a chap as rather comical. What did old Cattanach say? I suppose he's still at the helm--worse luck for me."

"Yes, he is. I gave him your letter, Malcolm."

"The deuce you did! Then you shouldn't have done it. He's a fossil--knows nothing about life. But there--don't let us quarrel about such things. I am jolly glad to see you, old girl. And now I'll relieve you of all these beastly sordid cares. But Creagh, good Lord!--and not a bit of horse-flesh on the premises, I could bet my bottom dollar! I think I must try and rake up a motor-bike before I leave town; otherwise it will be like being buried alive."

The guard was calling London passengers to take their seats, and they made haste into the nearest compartment, which quickly filled up so that no further talk of a private nature was possible. Isla was glad of it. She had had enough.

As she sat opposite to her brother who, immediately the train started, composed himself in his corner for a sleep, she had ample time to study his face. That study filled her with a great and growing sadness. He was just over thirty, and in all these years there were few well-spent days. As a boy he had been a care and trouble to his people and to his schoolmasters, and, in these respects, the boy had been father to the man.

She thought again with a little, faint, passin

g sight of envy of the gallant boy whom the Edens had given to their country, who had died a hero's death upon the field. She told herself that had such a fate been Malcolm's she could have thanked God for it. Then she drew herself up with a little shudder, remembering sharply certain Bible words which had no uncertain sound--"Whoso hateth his brother is a murderer."

She did not hate him--only her heart was very tired and full of fear for the future.

That night, at the hospitable table of his uncle in Belgrave Square, Malcolm shone with the best of them. He was on his mettle, and he exerted himself to please, showing a nice deference to his stately aunt as well as to his jolly uncle, and he made himself perfectly adorable to his cousins.

Isla felt herself quite put in the background, but she did not mind. It was even a relief not to think, but just to sit still and let Malcolm's false light shine. Soon enough they would have to know what had happened, and then she knew that her Aunt Jean would never forgive him.

She came into Isla's room that night when the girl was brushing her hair, and, touched by the expression on her face, put a kindly question.

"What is it, dear child? Don't you feel very well? You haven't looked like yourself all day."

"I'm all right, Aunt Jean," Isla answered, but she did not meet her aunt's eyes.

"Malcolm is simply splendid! How improved he is! What charming manners! After all, the Army is the place for boys like Malcolm. Do you remember what an anxiety he used to be to your father in the old days? How proud of him he must be now!"

Isla did not answer--she simply could not. She felt as if she must scream out loud.

"Your uncle is delighted. They've been having a long talk in the smoking-room. Must you really hurry away on Friday, dear? We should simply love to have you and Malcolm for another week. I could get up a little dance for Malcolm. That sort of impromptu affair is often most enjoyable and it really seems a shame to go and bury him in Achree, or rather in Creagh, for so long."

"I can't stop, Aunt Jean. You know how father is. He is really quite frail, and I should not have an easy mind after Friday, but Malcolm can stop if he likes."

"I must ask him. How long has he, do you know?"

"You can ask him that, too, Aunt Jean," answered Ida very low.

"He isn't at all pleased about the letting of Achree. From his point of view, it does seem a little hard. Why did you do it, Isla, when you knew he was coming home this year? Surely it could have waited at least till the autumn."

"It couldn't wait. We had no money to go on with, Aunt Jean," answered Isla.

"Oh but, my dear, your uncle or I would have come to the rescue. What are folk for if they can't be made use of in that direction?" asked Lady Mackinnon almost playfully.

"It didn't matter about the letting, auntie. Everybody does it, and as for Malcolm, he is the very last person who ought to complain."

The voice was so hard that it slightly wounded the woman who heard it. She stepped forward and lifted the girl's chin in her hand and looked down into her face.

"Don't get hard, Isla. It is so unbecoming to a woman. I know that you have had a lot to think of, but now that Malcolm has come home roll it off on to his broad shoulders. It is what broad shoulders are given to our menfolk for. And, above all, don't get thinking that nobody can do things except yourself. Don't you think you're just a wee bit inclined that way, Isla?"

"Yes, I am all that way," answered Isla stolidly. "I fully admit it. But don't imagine I like it, Aunt Jean. The thing that I most want in this world is peace, and I can't get it. Good night, auntie. I'm sorry that I'm so disappointing."

Lady Mackinnon kissed her fondly, yet with a little regret.

"Isla's getting hard, Tom," she said to her husband when he came up a little later. "It's very bad for a girl to lose her mother, though in Isla's case, of course, it would have been worse if her mother had been spared. Don't you notice how hard and dull she has got to be of late? What a pity she couldn't marry! She used to be quite pretty."

"Used to be, Jean! What are you talking about?" asked Sir Tom rather irritably. "She's pretty yet, with the sort of beauty that a man doesn't tire of, and she's clever too. Depend on it, if Isla's hard she has had something to make her so. Malcolm's charming, of course, and much improved, but just once or twice to-night I felt that he didn't ring true."

"Nonsense, Tom. We have been out of the world too long and haven't marched with the times. I should like them to stop for a week or two, but Isla won't hear of it. She says she must go on Friday."

"Let Isla alone. She knows her own business best. As for Malcolm, please yourself, but I haven't got at the bottom of the meaning of this leave of his yet. It's unusual. I shouldn't wonder to hear that there is something behind it."

Lady Mackinnon did not take her husband's words at all seriously. She had no son, and her heart warmed to Malcolm, and she fell asleep, thinking how blessed she would have been among women had he been hers. Another of the mistakes this into which poor humanity, seeing through a glass darkly, is so liable to fall!

Next morning Isla left the house about eleven o'clock to go to an obscure street on the other side of Bayswater for the purpose of calling on an old servant at Achree, who had married a butler, and who now conducted a small boarding-house off the Edgeware Road.

It was a lovely spring morning, and she said she would prefer to walk across the Park. She greatly enjoyed that walk. The wide spaces of the Park, the enchanting glimpses through the trees which, though still bare, were beautiful with the sun upon their delicate tracery of branch and bough, seemed to fill her soul.

She did not greatly care for London life, and she often wondered a little at her cousins' enthusiasm over balls and routs, and all the treadmill of fashionable society. They were so excited over their Court frocks that their dreams were haunted by chiffons and festoons of lace and Court trains hung from slender shoulders.

Isla indeed was far too grave for her years. She had been cheated of her youth. Even she herself did not know what possibilities for frivolity and fun her nature held, nor how gay she could have been had not care, like a gaunt spectre, walked so long by her side.

Her discomfort about Malcolm was keen this morning. Even the gracious influence of the sun could not altogether banish it. But it helped, and her face looked very sweet under the brim of her simple hat, and more than one pair of eyes filled with admiration as she passed.

She left the park at the Marble Arch, crossed the road, and made her way along the Edgeware Road to Cromar Street, where Mrs. Fraser lived. It was not her first visit, and Agnes having been apprised of her coming, was on the doorstep to welcome her.

"There ye are, Miss Isla--a sight for sair een! I have been so put about wi' joy all this morning that I have not been able to do my work. How are you, and how is all at dear Achree?"

"So, so, Agnes," answered Isla with a smile as she grasped the faithful servant's hand and passed across her hospitable threshold. "You look wonderfully well. I hope that Fraser is too, and the children, and that everything is going right with you?"

Isla possessed to the full the faculty of binding those who served her to her with hooks of steel, she was so sweetly kind and interested in everything concerning them. Yet she held their respect, and no servant, even the least satisfactory, had ever been known to presume in the smallest degree upon any kindness shown.

She sat down in Agnes Fraser's ugly, heavy dining-room, which reeked of stale tobacco smoke, but which represented the greater part of her living, being let, with bedroom accommodation, to two permanencies who paid her well. And there Isla listened to the whole recital of the good woman's affairs. It occurred to Agnes only after Isla had gone, at the end of an hour's time, that she had really heard very little about Achree.

As Isla had risen to depart, she had said with a smile: "If you are coming to the glen this summer, Agnes, you will have a longer walk to get to us. We have gone to live at Creagh for the season, and Achree is let to some Americans."

Agnes looked the dismay she felt, but abstained from comment and only remarked that she hoped they had made Creagh comfortable, and that they would not find it too dull.

But after the door was shut upon her visitor she wept tears of sorrow because the glory was departed from Achree.

Her last duty done, Isla's thoughts as she left the house began to revert with persistent longing to the glen. She had neither part nor lot in cities, and she could not understand the craze that people had for this great, overgrown London, where folk were always in a hurry and falling over one another in their haste.

Mrs. Fraser's house was well up the street, and Isla, walking quite fast and wrapped up in her own thoughts, had no eyes for any of those who passed her. But presently she came to the corner house of a little street near the Marble Arch end of the road. The door opened as she passed, and two persons came out, so close upon her that she could not but notice them.

Then her heart gave a sickly bound, and she sped on without once looking back.

It was Malcolm who came out of that house, and there was with him a woman, an impossible woman--that was the impression Isla carried away--a large, tall person, with an abundance of yellow hair and an enormous black hat perched upon it. Handsome in a way she might be, and her smile as she had made some jesting remark to her companion had been dazzling.

But it did not dazzle Isla. She grew cold all over, and, without waiting on her better judgment, which might have urged some quite simple explanation, she jumped to the conclusion that Malcolm had some entanglement which was at the bottom of his downfall.

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