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   Chapter 29 THE LAST LEAF ON THE TREE

The Last of Their Race By Annie S. Swan Characters: 18448

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Once more the burying-place of the Mackinnons in Balquhidder kirkyard was opened to receive a Laird of Achree. While a small band of mourners stood by it in the soft spring sunshine Isla sat with her Aunt Jean in the library of the Lodge of Creagh, staring in front of her with a far-away expression on her face. Lady Mackinnon, who had not yet recovered from the effects of the hurried journey from Barras, was talking in subdued tones about the future. But Isla heard her as she heard her not.

"Of course you will just come to Barras, my dear, and we'll do our best. It is a very fortunate thing that the Rosmeads have Achree for another year and more. It will give us time to turn round. Don't look like that, Isla. It is all very terrible, of course, but it is not the end of everything."

At the moment there was a tap at the door, and Diarmid's grey head appeared, his lace looking old and worn, his eyes tired with weeping.

"Please, Miss Isla, it's a leddy. She will not go away, whatefer, and I have putten her in the little pack room till I ask whether you will see her."

"No, of course not. I will," said Lady Mackinnon, bustling up. "A lady! Don't you know her, Diarmid? Hasn't she given you a name?"

"No, my Leddy, I don't ken her. She's frem to Glenogle, and she says Miss Isla would not ken her name, forby."

Isla was already at the door.

"No, Aunt Jean. Thank you very much, but I must see her. I think I know who it is."

Rather disappointed--for anything would have served to break the dreary monotony of this awful house--Lady Mackinnon sank back into her chair, but a moment after, acting on a sudden impulse, she rose and swiftly drew up the blind. She then saw that a hired trap was waiting outside the gate, the man nodding on the box-seat, while the reins lay loosely across the horse's neck.

She knew nothing of the tragedy at the back of Malcolm's life, and, though it had been more than whispered in the Glen that there had been no accident on Loch Earn, but that Mackinnon had gone forth, meaning to take his own life in the way that seemed easiest and would occasion least remark, these rumours had not been permitted to reach Creagh.

But Isla, in her heart, had knowledge and confirmation of these things, though she had not heard of them.

How surprised, then, would Lady Mackinnon have been could she have heard what passed in the little room behind.

Isla entered quietly, closed the door, and faced the woman with whom she had already spoken twice and who, in some strange way, was mixed up with the tragedy of Malcolm's life and death.

"You're not surprised to see me, I can see," she said without preliminary. "Did you know I was in Scotland?"

"Yes," answered Isla clearly. "Please to sit down and tell me all that you wish to tell me and that it is necessary I should hear. But first, let me ask one question--Are you, were you, my brother's wife?"

She shook her head.

"I ought to have been, but I wasn't. That was the beginning and the end of the trouble. I waited for him so long, and he promised me faithful and true that if I would only wait quietly till he got out of his sea of troubles he would marry me."

"I understand," said Isla rather faintly. "Please say no more now, but tell me as quickly as you can what you know about it all."

Neither sat down. Isla stood by the table with her white, frail hand on the red baize of the tablecover, her shadowed eyes looking forth with a strange sad pity on the woman's face.

All her high colour had faded, her eyes were dimmed with weeping, she had forgotten to take a pride in her beautiful hair, she looked what she was--a dishevelled and broken creature on whom even a hard heart must needs have had compassion. And Isla's heart was not hard any more.

"Well, you see, Miss Mackinnon," she said, wiping her eyes with her sodden handkerchief, "you don't want to hear the whole story as to how we got to know each other in India and how fond he was of me and I of him. So I'll hurry on to where I met you first. I came to Scotland then, because he hadn't written to me for such a long time and because, when I learned that his father had died and that he had come into the property, I thought it was time I looked after myself. He spoke very fair then--explained how hard up he was and what a tangle everything was in, and he promised that if only I'd wait other six months he'd make everything straight and right. He told me all that right down by the water at Strathyre that night when he rode down from here to see me--the night before you and I met on the London train. Well, I went back to London, because he asked me to trust him a little longer. But I was not very easy in my mind. I kept quiet, living on my little bit of money and doing a bit of needlework and going out occasionally with a friend, but never forgetting that some day I was to be lady here and wife to the man I loved. Then I saw the thing in the paper--that he was going to marry the American woman, and I think that I went mad for a bit. I don't know quite where I was or what I did. I only know that I rose and went to Scotland straight to the hotel at Lochearnhead, and in the afternoon I walked up to Achree and asked for Mrs. Rodney Payne."

"Oh!" said Isla with a little gasp, and she pressed her hand to her heart.

"You feel for her. Perhaps she's a friend of yours, but it had to be done. You don't know what it is to see another woman get hold of the man you care for and who belongs to you. I like you, and I pray God you may never know what it's like. Well, I told her just the whole story--the story I haven't told you, though you're sharp enough and can fill it all up.

"What did she say?--not much, but I could see that it finished him in that quarter, which was all I cared about.

"Well, then I sent for him. When he came he had seen her. I could tell it by the white despair on his face, and then I knew that it was not her money he wanted at all, but that he cared about her as he had never cared about me, that she was his own kind--the sort that would lift him right up and make the best of him.

"Something seemed to snap inside of me. I believe it was my heart that broke. I didn't reproach him. He did all the reproaching--there, in the dark, by that God-forsaken loch. We seemed to walk for hours, and I don't know where we were when he left me. He said his life was over, but I never thought or believed he would take it away. To tell you the truth, Miss, I didn't believe he had the courage to do it."

"You think he did it, then?" said Isla in a low, tense whisper.

"I know it. He simply went out in that boat, never meaning to come back. You and I know it, but we needn't tell. And anyway, perhaps it's better; only I wish it had been me--I wish it had been me!"

Her voice broke into a little wail, and she covered her face with her hands. Isla went to her side and laid her hand, which trembled very much, on her shoulder.

"I am very sorry for you. If I knew how to help or comfort you I would."

She caught Isla's hand, laid her cheek a moment against it, and then began to walk unsteadily towards the door.

"You're a good woman--one of the best," she said, pausing a moment. "I hope you'll be happy yet. You'll never hear of me again. I'm going away to-night back to my own place. But I thought I'd like to see you before I went and tell you the truth. Good-bye."

But even after Isla's hand was on the door she lingered, as if something still remained unsaid.

"When you see her tell her that I loved him and that I could never have been so hard on him as she was. If he had really cared, tell her, she would have forgiven even me."

"Oh, hush!" cried Isla in distress. "You don't know all she has suffered. But it is no good to talk. Life is an awful thing. Thank you for coming. I shall often think of you, and, though I have no right, for I, too, have been hard, I'll--I'll pray for you."

A kiss passed between them, and they parted--never to meet again in this world.

Isla went through the house and out by the kitchen door to the hill beyond. She was so long gone that when she came back the Garrion carriage was at the door, and Sir Tom with Neil Drummond was in the drawing-room with her aunt.

Isla's face went a little white when she saw Neil, and she stood by the tea table with her back to him for a moment. Even Sir Tom's genial personality could not relieve the great strain. When Isla after a time, in response to a certain question in Drummond's eyes, left the room with him, Sir Tom turned eagerly to his wife.

"We must positively get away in the morning, Jean. Another day in this house would finish me. There seems to be a curse on Achree. Have you spoken to Isla, and is she going back with us?"

"I don't know. She hardly speaks at all, but of course she must go. There isn't anything else to do, and the sooner Neil Drummond follows her and we have a quiet wedding at Barras the better it will be. It is the only solution of the problem of Isla's life. I'm more tired of that problem than of anything else in this world, Tom."

He took a turn across the floor.

"The American chap was at the funeral. T

here's something uncommon taking about him. He and Drummond were talking together for a good half-hour after we had left the churchyard, and, judging from their faces, I'm sure it was some matter in which they had a life-and-death interest that they were talking about. Then Drummond, looking a little white about the gills, came up to me and said he was coming over to see Isla, and asked if I would drive with him."

"It was quite natural for him to come and see Isla, of course, and probably he was only discussing the situation with Mr. Rosmead. Neil will have to act for Isla now."

Lady Mackinnon had very little imagination, but Sir Tom was not easy in his mind.

Isla went out of doors with Neil Drummond, and they climbed up the slope to the edge of the Moor, and there they stood still. They were very near the house, but nobody could see them, and Isla waited--for what she did not know.

"I've seen Rosmead, Isla. I suppose the thing he has told me is true?"

"What did he tell you?"

"That you and he--that you and he care for each other."

"Yes, that is true. But I will keep my promise to you, Neil. A little suffering more or less--what does it matter? There is nothing else in the world."

He smiled a little hardly.

"I've cared a long time, and a lot, Isla. But I haven't sunk so low----" he made answer. "I give you back your freedom."

"But even if you do, it does not follow that I will marry him."

"If you care about him it is what you must do," he said quietly. "Tell me, Isla--Are you sure about this? If I thought there was any chance I wouldn't give you up. Are you sure?"

She was silent for a moment, her unfathomable eyes following the flight of a wild bird on the wing until it was lost in illimitable distance.

Neil Drummond had no great gifts. He was only a simple, honest soul who did his duty according to his lights, but in that moment he tasted to the full at once the anguish and the high joy of renunciation. Such clear understanding of a woman's heart came to him that for a moment he forgot the intolerable ache of his own.

Isla's gaze came back and fell upon his face as she answered simply, "I am sure. I would follow him to the end of the world without a question or a doubt, and I would not have a wish apart from his will. That is how I care, Neil. If I could feel like that for you I would give the best years of my life. I didn't seek this thing," she went on when he made no answer. "It came to me, and I think when it is like that we----we cannot help ourselves, Neil. It is part of the mystery of life. I am so tired with it all that I would wish to-day that I could lie down in Balquhidder beside them."

"Your life is only beginning," he said slowly and with difficulty. "I will say good-bye, and I will ask you to believe that there is nothing in the world I want so much as your happiness. You have had none, and, though I am not the man who can give it to you, I ask you to take it--and to take it soon--from the man who can."

Thus did Neil Drummond, a commonplace, everyday man such as we meet so often upon the highway, rise to the height of renunciation and prove himself a hero.

Isla's eyes swam in a strange tenderness as she turned to him, trying to thank him. But even while she would have spoken he had left her, and soon she heard the rumble of the wheels on the road--the wheels which took him back to Garrion--never more, in obedience to a lover's quest, to speed across the rough road to the Moor of Creagh.

After a time Isla went back very quietly and soberly to the house to astonish her relatives by another vagary.

"I am ready to go to Barras to-morrow, Aunt Jean, and to stop as long as you like."

"And will Neil come with us or after us, my dear?" asked Lady Mackinnon, her shrewd eyes lighting up cheerfully. "You know there is room and to spare in the house."

"No, Aunt Jean, Neil will not come. I am not going to marry him now--nor any man," she answered.

And she sped away to make her preparations for the journey which, an hour before, she thought nothing on earth would induce her to undertake.

A strange peace seemed to brood that night upon the Lodge of Creagh and the Moor of Silence. Sleep was very far from Isla's eyes as she sat before her uncurtained window, looking out upon the limitless space on which the white moonlight lay.

The end of all things had come, so far as human judgment could determine. The last Mackinnon of Achree slept with his forefathers, and she, a poor weak woman of no account, was left to tie up the broken threads. Her thoughts of Malcolm were very tender, nor had she any misgiving, thinking of where he might be.

"It is better to fall into the hands of the living God than into the hands of men," she might have said, had she been called upon for an expression of her state of mind.

Upon her knees, with her chin upon the sill of the open window and her eyes upon the great silence where the moonlight lay, she asked to be forgiven for her hardness of heart, for her swift condemnation, for her poor, puny, disastrous efforts to set the world right. She knew now, in that moment of clear vision, that no man or woman is called to so great a task, but that what is asked of us all is merely and only the simple performance of each day's homely duty, by the doing of which, nevertheless, the whole fabric of human life and human achievement is ennobled and perfected.

With her chin resting upon the window-sill and her eyes, uplifted to the kindly, but impenetrable skies, Isla prayed. And then, leaving herself and her destiny for ever in the Hand which alone is capable of unravelling and setting in fair order human affairs, she crept to her bed to sleep off the overwhelming fatigue of the day.

Next morning there were many leave-takings in the Lodge of Creagh, and Diarmid and Margaret, whom the sorrows of their folk had drawn together in a touching unity, stood side by side on the step to watch Isla drive away with her uncle and aunt.

The young, small, frail woman, to whom their fealty was still due and who represented all that was left of the Glenogle Mackinnons, waved to them smilingly, bidding them be of good cheer until she should come back.

And when the last bend of the road was taken and the rumble of the departing wheels had died upon the air, the two old servants looked at each other a little pitifully, while tears rose in Margaret's eyes.

"She nefer will come pack, Diarmid, and you and me maype will grow old man and woman here in Creagh till they come to lay us in Balquhidder."

Diarmid answered never a word, but, later in the day, he delivered himself to Rosmead, who came on the swift feet of impatience to seek Isla.

"She hass gone away, sir, to Barras with Sir Thomas Mackinnon and his leddy, but whether it pe a long time or a short time afore she comes back I am not able to say."

"To Barras!" said Rosmead with musing in his eyes. "Tell me how she is, Diarmid. Did she seem sad?"

"Not so fery sad, considering sir," answered Diarmid, compelled, he knew not why, to lay bare his innermost thought to the man before him. "Me and Marget stood here, watchin' them, and she smiled as she went, and her face seemed to shine. But it iss a fery peetifu' thing, Maister Rosmead, for me and Marget to ken that soon the Mackinnons will be swept from the Glen, root and branch, and their fery name forgot."

"As long as she lives, Diarmid, that can never be," said Rosmead with the conviction of a man who knew. "Good-day, my man. Keep up your heart. There are new days coming for Achree and the name you love."

Before he turned away from the Lodge of Creagh, Rosmead climbed to the edge of the Moor of Silence and stood still for a moment on the very spot, though he knew it not, where Isla had stood with Neil Drummond but yesterday.

From where he stood he commanded a vast view, the Moor behind and beyond, and the winding road down Glenogle, with all the little hills huddling on its flanks, and widening out to the glory of Loch Earn.

Achree he could not see, but his eyes, as they ranged towards it, were filled with that vast tenderness which proclaims that the deeps of being are stirred.

Isla had gone away without message or sign, but that neither grieved nor troubled him. Some day, from out the silence, the sign would come, or he would himself know the day and the hour of her need of him.

And as he turned, with the westering light upon his face, he made his vow that if God should give him a son, Donald Rosmead Mackinnon he should be called, so that the name should not die for ever out of Glenogle and the Moor of Silence.

THE END

* * * * * * * *

Novels and Stories by

ANNIE S. SWAN

Between the Tides

Young Blood

The Fairweathers

The Last of Their Race

The Ivory God

Rhona Keith

The Forerunners

Nancy Nicholson

Meg Hamilton

Mary Garth

The Magic of Love

Love Unlocks the Door

Love's Miracle

The Bridge Builders

The Stepmother

Christian's Cross

Maid of the Isles

MacLeod's Wife

Love the Master Key

Mask of Gold

Shore Beyond

Woven of the Wind

HODDER AND STOUGHTON LIMITED

LONDON

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