THE LAST OF THE LILAC SUNBONNET
Craig Ronald lies bright in a dreaming day in mid-September. The reapers are once more in the fields. Far away there is a crying of voices. The corn-fields by the bridge are white with a bloomy and mellow whiteness. Some part of the oats is already down. Close into the standing crop there is a series of rhythmic flashes, the scythes swinging like a long wave that curls over here and there. Behind the line of flashing steel the harvesters swarm like ants running hither and thither crosswise, apparently in aimless fashion.
Up through the orchard comes a girl, tall and graceful, but with a touch of something nobler and stiller that does not come to girlhood. It is the seal of the diviner Eden grace which only comes with the after Eden pain.
Winsome Peden carries more than ever of the old grace and beauty; and the eyes of her husband, who has been finishing the proofs of his next volume and at intervals looking over the busy fields to the levels of Loch Grannoch, tell her so as she comes.
But suddenly from opposite sides of the orchard this girl with the gracious something in her eyes is borne down by simultaneous assault. Shrieking with delight, a boy and a girl, dressed in complete defensive armour of daisies, and wielding desperate arms of lath manufactured by Andra Kissock, their slave, rush fiercely upon her. They pull down their quarry after a brisk chase, who sinks helplessly upon the grass under a merciless fire of caresses.
It is a critical moment. A brutal and licentious soldiery are not responsible at such moments. They may carry sack and rapine to unheard of extremities.
‘You young barbarians, be careful of your only mother—unless you have a stock of them!’ calls a voice from the top of the stairs which lead to the study.
‘Father's come out—hurrah! Come on, Allan!’ shouts Field-Marshal Winifred the younger who is leader and commander, to her army whose tottery and chubby youth does not suggest the desperation of a forlorn hope. So the study is carried at the point of the lath, and the banner of the victors—a cross of a sort unknown to heraldry, marked on a white ground with a blue pencil—is planted on the sacred desk itself.
Winsome the matron comes more slowly up the stairs.
‘Can common, uninspired people come in?’ she says, pausing at the top.
She looks about with a motherly eye, and pulls down the blind of the window into which the sun has been streaming all the morning. It is one of the advantages of such a wife that her husband, especially the rare literary variety, may be treated as no more than the eldest but most helpless of the babes. It is also true that Ralph had pulled up the blind in order that he might the better be able to see his wife moving among the reapers. For Winsome was more than ever a woman of affairs.
She stood in the doorway, looking in spite of the autumn sun and the walk up from the corn-field, deliriously cool. She fanned herself with a broad rhubarb-leaf—an impromptu fan plucked by the way. She sat down on the ledge of the upper step of Ralph's study, as she often did when she worked or rested. Ralph was again within, reclining on a window-seat, while the pack of reckless banditti swarmed over him.
‘Have the rhymes been behaving themselves this morning?’ Winsome said, looking across at Ralph as only a wife of some years' standing can look at her husband—with love deepened into understanding, and tempered with a spice of amusement and a wide and generous tolerance—the look of a loving woman to whom her husband and her husband's ways are better than a stage play. Such a look is a certificate of happy home and an ideal life, far more than all heroics. The love of the after-years depends chiefly on the capacity of a wife to be amused by her husband's peculiarities—and not to let him see it.
‘There are three blanks,’ said Ralph, a little wistfully. ‘I have written a good deal, but I dare not read it over, lest it should be nothing worth.’
This was a well-marked stage in Ralph's composition, and it was well that his wife had come.
‘I fear you have been dreaming, instead of working,’ she said, looking at him with a kind of pitying admiration. Ralph, too, had grown handsomer, so his wife thought, since she had him to look after. How, indeed, could it be otherwise?
She rose and went towards him.
‘Run down, now, children, and play on the grass,’ she said. ‘Run, chicks—off with you—shoo!’ and she flirted her apron after them as she did when she scattered the chickens from the dairy door. The pinafored people fled shrieking across the grass, tumbling over each other in riotous heaps.
Then Winsome went over and kissed her husband. He was looking so handsome that he deserved it. And she did not do it too often. She was glad that she had made him wear a beard. She put one of her hands behind his head and the other beneath his chin, tilting his profile with the air of a connoisseur. This can only be done in one position.
‘Well, does it suit your ladyship?’ said Ralph.
She gave him a little box on the ear.
‘I knew,’ he said, ‘that you wanted to come and sit on my knee!’
‘I never did,’ replied Winsome with animation, making a statement almost certainly inaccurate upon the face of it.
‘That's why you sent away the children,’ he went on, pinching her ear.
‘Of all things in this world,’ said Winsome indignantly, ‘commend me to a man for conceit!’
‘And to winsome wives for wily ways!’ said her husband instantly. To do him justice, he did not often do this sort of thing.
‘Keep the alliteration for the poems,’ retorted Winsome. ‘Truth will do for me.’
After a little while she said, without apparent connection:
‘It is very hot.’
‘What are they doing in the hay-field?’ asked Ralph.
‘Jock Forrest was leading and they were cutting down the croft very steadily. I think it looks like sixty bushels to the acre,’ she continued practically; ‘so you shall have a carpet for the study this year, if all goes well.’
‘That will be famous!’ cried Ralph, like a schoolboy, waving his hand. It paused among Winsome's hair.
‘I wish you would not tumble it all down,’ she said; ‘I am too old for that kind of thing now!’
The number of times good women perjure themselves is almost unbelievable.
But the recording angel has, it is said, a deaf side, otherwise he would need an ink-eraser. Ralph knew very well what she really meant, and continued to throw the fine-spun glossy waves over her head, as a miser may toss his gold for the pleasure of the cool, crisp touch.
‘Then,’ continued Winsome, without moving (for, though so unhappy and uncomfortable, she sat still—some women are born with a genius for martyrdom), ‘then I had a long talk with Meg.’
‘And the babe?’ queried Ralph, letting her hair run through his fingers.
‘And the babe,’ said Winsome; ‘she had laid it to sleep under a stock, and when we went to see, it looked so sweet under the narrow arch of the corn! Then it looked up with big wondering eyes. I believe he thought the inside of the stook was as high as a temple.’
‘It is not I that am the poet!’ said Ralph, transferring his attention for a moment from her hair.
‘Meg says Jock Forrest is perfectly good to her, and that she would not change her man for all Greatorix Castle.’
‘Does Jock make a good grieve?’ asked Ralph.
‘The very best; he is a great comfort to me,’ replied his wife. ‘I get far more time to work at the children's things—and also to look after my Ursa Major!’
‘What of Jess?’ asked Ralph; ‘did Meg say?’
‘Jess has taken the Lady Elizabeth to call on My Lord at Bowhill! What do you think of that? And she leads Agnew Greatorix about like a lamb, or rather like a sheep. He gets just one glass of sherry at dinner,’ said Winsome, who loved a spice of gossip—as who does not?
‘There is a letter from my father this morning,’ said Ralph, half turning to pick it off his desk; ‘he is well, but he is in distress, he says, because he got his pocket picked of his handkerchief while standing gazing in at a shop window wherein books were displayed for sale, but John Bairdieson has sewed another in at the time of writing. They had a repeating tune the other day, and the two new licentiates are godly lads, and turning out a credit to the kirk of the Marrow.’
‘And that is more than ever you would have done, Ralph,’ said his wife candidly.
‘Kezia is to be married in October, and there is a young man coming to see little Keren-happuch, but Jemima thinks that the minds of both of her younger sisters are too much set on the frivolous things of this earth. The professor has received a new kind of snuff from Holland which Kezia says is indistinguishable in its effects from pepper—one of his old students brought it to him—and that's all the news,’ said Ralph, closing up the letter and laying it on the table.
‘Has Saunders Moudiewort cast his easy affections on any one this year yet?’ Ralph asked, returning to the consideration of Winsome's hair.
Saunders was harvesting at present at Craig Ronald. The mistress of the farm laughed.
‘I think not,’ she said; ‘Saunders says that his mother is the most' siccar' housekeeper that he kens of, and that after a while ye get to mind her tongue nae mair nor the mill fanners.’
‘That's just the way with me when you scold me,’ said Ralph.
‘Very well, then, I must go to the summer seat and put you out of danger,’ replied Winsome. ‘Since you are so imposed upon, I shall see if the grannymother has done with her second volume. She never gets dangerous, except when she is kept waiting for the third.’
But before they had time to move, the rollicking storm-cloud of younglings again came tumultuously up the stairs—Winifred far in front, Allan toddling doggedly in the rear.
‘See what granny has put on my head!’ cried Mistress Winifred the youngest, whose normal manner of entering a room suggested a revolution.
‘Oo’ said Allan, pointing with his chubby finger, ‘yook, yook! mother's sitting on favver's knee-rock-a-by, favver, rock-a-by!’
But Ralph had no eyes for anything but the old sunbonnet in which, the piquant flower face of Mistress Five-year-old Winifred was all but lost. He stooped and kissed it, and the face under it. It was frayed and faded, and it had lost both strings.
Then he looked up and kissed the wife who was still his sweetheart, for the love the lilac sunbonnet had brought to them so many years ago was still fresh with the dew of their youth.
WINSOME'S LAST TRYST
It was the morn before a wedding, and there had been a constant stir all night all about the farmsteading, for a brand-new world was in the making. Such a marrying had not been for years. The farmers' sons for miles around were coming on their heavy plough-horses, with here and there one of better breed. Long ago in the earliest morning some one had rung the bell of the little kirk of the Dullarg. It came upon the still air a fairy tinkle, and many a cottar and many a shepherd turned over with a comfortable feeling: ‘This is the Sabbath morn; I need not rise so soon today.’ But all their wives remembered, and turned them out with wifely elbow.
It was Winsome Charteris's wedding day. The flower of all the countryside was to wed the young Edinburgh lad who had turned out so great a poet. It was the opinion of the district that her ‘intended’ had unsettled the thrones of all the great writers of the past by his volume of poems, which no one in the parish had read; but the fame of whose success had been wafted down upon the eastern breezes which bore the snell bite of the metropolis upon their front.
‘Tra-la-la-la!’ chanted the cocks of Craig Ronald.
‘Tra-la-la-la-la!’ airily sang the solitary bird which lived up among the pine woods, where, in the cot of Mistress Kissock, Ralph Peden occupied the little bedroom which Meg had got ready for him with such care and honour.
‘Tra-la-la-laa!’ was echoed in the airiest diminuendo from the far-away leader of the harem at the Nether Crae. His challenge crossed the wide gulf of air above Loch Grannoch, from which in the earliest morning the mists were rising.
Ralph Peden heard all three birds. He had a delightfully comfortable bedroom, and the flowers on the little white-covered table have come from the front square of Mistress Kissock's garden. There was a passion-flower on his table, which somehow reminded him of a girl who had put poppies in hair of the raven's wing hue. It had not grown in the garden of the cot.
Yet Ralph was out in the earliest dawn, listening to the sighing of the trees and taking in the odour of the perfume from the pines on the slope.
Ralph did not write any poem this morning, though the Muses were abroad in the stillness of the dawn. His eyes were on a little window once more overclambered by the June roses. His poem was down there, and it was coming to him.
How eagerly he looked, his eyes like telescopes! Then his heart thrilled. In the cool flood of slanting morning sunshine which had just overflowed the eastern gable of the house, some one swiftly crossed the court-yard of the farm. In a moment the sun, winking on a pair of tin pails, told him that Meg Kissock was going to the well. From the barn end some one stepped out by her side and walked to the well. Then, as they returned, it was not the woman who was carrying the winking pails. At the barn end they drew together in the shadow for a long minute, and then again Ralph saw Meg's back as she walked sedately to the kitchen door, the cans flashing rhythmically as she swung them. So high was he above them that he could even notice the mellow dimple of diffused light from the water in the bright pail centring and scattering the morning sunlight as it swayed.
Presently the one half of the blue kitchen door became black. It had been opened. Ralph's heart gave a great bound. Then the black became white and glorified, for framed within it appeared a slender shape like a shaft of light. Ralph's eyes did not leave the figure as it stepped out and came down by the garden edge.
Along the top of the closely-cut hawthorn a dot of light moved. It was but a speck, like the paler centre of the heather bells. Ralph ran swiftly down the great dyke in a manner more natural to a young man than dignified in a poet. In a minute he came to the edge of the glen in which Andra Kissock had guddled the trouts. That flash of lavender must pass this way. It passed and stayed.
So in the cool translucence of morning light the lovers met in this quiet glade, the great heather moors above them once more royally purple, the burnie beneath singing a gentle song, the birds vying with each other in complicated trills of pretended artlessness.
It was purely by chance that Winsome Charteris passed this way. And a kind Providence, supplemented on Ralph's side by some activity and observation, brought him also to the glen of the elders that June morning. Yet there are those who say that there is nothing in coincidence.
When Winsome, moving thoughtfully onward, gently waving a slip of willow in her hand, came in sight of Ralph, she stood and waited. Ralph went towards her, and so on their marriage morn these two lovers met.
It was like that morning on which by the lochside they parted, yet it was not like it.
With that prescience which is a sixth sense to women, Winsome had slipped on the old sprigged gown which had done duty at the blanket-washing so long ago, and her hair, unbound in the sun, shone golden as it flowed from beneath the lilac sunbonnet. As for Ralph, it does not matter how he was dressed. In love, dress does not matter a brass button after the first corner is turned—at least not to the woman.
‘Sweet,’ said Ralph, ‘you are awake?’
Winsome looked up with eyes so glorious and triumphant that a blind man could scarce have doubted the fact.
‘And you love me?’ he continued, reading her eyes. With her old ripple of laughter she lightened the strain of the occasion.
‘You are a silly boy,’ she said; ‘but you'll learn. I have come out to gather flowers,’ she added, ingenuously. ‘I shall expect you to help. No—no—and nothing else.’
Had Ralph been in a fit condition to observe Nature this morning, it might have occurred to him that when girls come out to gather flowers for somewhat extensive decoration, they bring with them at least a basket and generally also their fourth best pair of scissors. Winsome had neither. But he was not in a mood for careful inductions.
The morning lights sprayed upon them as they went hither and thither gathering flowers—dew-drenched hyacinths, elastic wire- strung bluebells the colour of the sky when the dry east wind blows, the first great red bushes of the ling. Now it is a known fact that, in order properly to gather flowers, the collectors must divide and so quarter the ground.
‘But this was not a scientific expedition,’ said Ralph, when the folly of their mode of proceeding was pointed out to him.
It was manifestly impossible that they could gather flowers walking with the palm of Ralph's left hand laid on the inside of Winsome's left arm. The thing cannot be done. At least so Ralph admitted afterwards.
‘No,’ said Ralph, ‘but you made me promise to keep my shoulders back, and I am trying to to do it now.’
And his manner of assisting Winsome to gather her flowers for her wedding bouquet was, when you come to think of it, admirably adapted for keeping the shoulders back.
‘Meg waked me this morning,’ said Winsome suddenly.
‘She did, did she?’ remarked Ralph ineffectively, with a quick envy of Meg. Then it occurred to him that he had no need to envy Meg. And Winsome blushed for no reason at all.
Then she became suddenly practical, as the protective instinct teaches women to be on these occasions.
‘You have not seen your study,’ she said.
‘No,’ said Ralph, ‘but I have heard enough about it. It has occupied sixteen pages in the last three letters.’
Ralph considered the study a good thing, but he had his views upon the composition of love-letters.
‘You are an ungrateful boy,’ said Winsome sternly, ‘and I shall see that you get no more letters—not any more!’
‘I shall never want any, little woman,’ cried Ralph joyously, ‘for I shall have you!’
It was a blessing that at this moment they were passing under the dense shade of the great oaks at the foot of the orchard. Winsome had thought for five minutes that it would happen about there. It happened.
A quarter of an hour later they came out into the cool ocean of leaf shadow which lay blue upon the grass and daisies. Winsome now carried the sunbonnet over her arm, and in the morning sunshine her uncovered head was so bright that Ralph could not gaze at it long. Besides, he wanted to look at the eyes that looked at him, and one cannot do everything at once.
‘This is your study,’ she said, standing back to let him look in. It was a long, low room with an outside stair above the farthermost barn, and Winsome had fitted it up wondrously for Ralph. It opened off the orchard, and the late blossoms scattered into it when the winds blew from the south.
They stood together on the topmost step. There was a desk and one chair, and a low window-seat in each of the deep windows.
‘You will never be disturbed here,’ said Winsome.
‘But I want to be disturbed,’ said Ralph, who was young and did not know any better.
‘Now go in,’ said Winsome, giving him a little push in the way that, without any offence, a proximate wife may. ‘Go in and study a little this morning, and see how you like it.’
Ralph considered this as fair provocation, and turned, with bonds and imprisonment in his mind. But Winsome had vanished.
But from beneath came a clear voice out of the unseen:
‘If you don't like it, you can come round and tell me. It will not be too late till the afternoon. Any time before three!’
A mere man is at a terrible disadvantage in word play of this kind. On this occasion Ralph could think of nothing better than--
‘Winsome Charteris, I shall pay you back for this!’
Then he heard what might either have been a bell ringing for the fairies' breakfast, or a ripple of the merriest earthly laughter very far away.
Then he sat down to study.
It took him quite an hour to arrive at a conclusion; but when reached it was a momentous one. It was, that it is a mistake to be married in summer, for three o'clock in the afternoon is such a long time in coming.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.