CONCERNING TAKING EXERCISE
Winsome and Ralph walked silently and composedly side by side up the loaning under the elder-trees, over the brook at the watering- place to which in her hoydenish girlhood Winsome had often ridden the horses when the ploughmen loosed Bell and Jess from the plough. In these days she rode without a side-saddle. Sometimes she did it yet when the spring gloamings were gathering fast, but no one knew this except Jock Forrest, the ploughman, who never told any more than he could help.
Silence deep as that of yesterday wrapped about the farmhouse of Craig Ronald. The hens were all down under the lee of the great orchard hedge, chuckling low to themselves, and nestling with their feathers spread balloon-wise, while they flirted the hot summer dust over them. Down where the grass was in shadow a mower was sharpening his blade. The clear metallic sound of the ‘strake’ or sharpening strop, covered with pure white Loch Skerrow sand set in grease, which scythemen universally use in Galloway, cut through the slumberous hum of the noonday air like the blade itself through the grass. The bees in the purple flowers beneath the window boomed a mellow bass, and the grasshoppers made love by millions in the couch grass, chirring in a thousand fleeting raptures.
‘Wait here while I go in,’ commanded Winsome, indicating a chair in the cool, blue-flagged kitchen, which Meg Kissock had marked out in white, with whorls and crosses of immemorial antiquity—the same that her Pictish forefathers had cut deep in the hard Silurian rocks of the southern uplands.
It was a little while before, in the dusk of the doorway Winsome appeared, looking paler and fairer and more infinitely removed from him than before. Instinctively he wished himself out with her again on the broomy knowe. He seemed somehow nearer to her there. Yet he followed obediently enough.
Within the shadowed ‘ben’-room of Craig Ronald all the morning this oddly assorted pair of old people had been sitting—as indeed every morning they sat, one busily reading and often looking up to talk; while the other, the master of the house himself, sat silent, a majestic and altogether pathetic figure, looking solemnly out with wide-open, dreamy eyes, waking to the actual world of speech and purposeful life only at rare intervals.
But Walter Skirving was keenly awake when Ralph Peden entered. It was in fact he, and not his partner, who spoke first—for Walter Skirving's wife had among other things learned when to be silent— which was, when she must.
‘You honour my hoose,’ he said; ‘though it grieves me indeed that I canna rise to receive yin o' your family an' name! But what I have is at your service, for it was your noble faither that led the faithful into the wilderness on the day o' the Great Apostasy!’
The young man shook him by the hand. He had no bashfulness here. He was on his own ground. This was the very accent of the society in which he moved in Edinburgh.
‘I thank you,’ he said, quietly and courteously, stepping back at once into the student of divinity; ‘I have often heard my father speak of you. You were the elder from the south who stood by him on that day. He has ever retained a great respect for you.’
‘It was a great day,’ Walter Skirving muttered, letting his arm rest on the little square deal table which stood beside him with his great Bible open upon it—’a great day—aye, Maister Peden's laddie i' my hoose! He's welcome, he's mair nor welcome.’
So saying, he turned his eyes once more on the blue mist that filled the wide Grannoch Valley, and the bees hummed again in the honey-scented marshmallows so that all heard them.
‘This is my grandmother,’ said Winsome, who stood quite quiet behind her chair, swinging the sunbonnet in her hand. From her flower-set corner the old lady held out her hand. With a touch of his father's old-fashioned courtesy he stooped and kissed it. Winsome instinctively put her hand quickly behind her as though he had kissed that. Once such practices have a beginning, who knows where they may end? She had not expected it of him, though, curiously, she thought no worse of him for his gallantry.
But the lady of Craig Ronald was obviously greatly pleased.
‘The lad has guid bluid in him. That's the minnie [mother] o' him, nae doot. She was a Gilchrist o' Linwood on Nithsdale. What she saw in your faither to tak' him I dinna ken ony mair than I ken hoo it cam' to pass that I am the mistress o' Walter Skirving's hoose the day.—Come oot ahint my chair, lassie; dinna be lauchin' ahint folks's backs. D'ye think I'm no mistress o' my ain hoose yet, for a' that ye are sic a grand hoosekeeper wi' your way o't.’
The accusation was wholly gratuitous. Winsome had been grave with a great gravity. But she came obediently out, and seated herself on a low stool by her grandmother's side. There she sat, holding her hand, and leaning her elbow on her knee. Ralph thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life—an observation entirely correct. The old lady was clad in a dress of some dark stiff material, softer than brocade, which, like herself, was more beautiful in its age than even in youth. Folds of snowy lawn covered her breast and fell softly about her neck, fastened there by a plain black pin. Her face was like a portrait by Henry Raeburn, so beautifully venerable and sweet. The twinkle in her brown eyes alone told of the forceful and restless spirit which was imprisoned within. She had been reading a new volume of the Great Unknown which the Lady Elizabeth had sent her over from the Big House of Greatorix. She had laid it down on the entry of the young man. Now she turned sharp upon him.
‘Let me look at ye, Maister Ralph Peden. Whaur gat ye the 'Ralph'? That's nae westland Whig name. Aye, aye, I mind—what's comin' o' my memory? Yer grandfaither was auld Ralph Gilchrist; but ye dinna tak' after the Gilchrists—na, na, there was no ane o' them weel faured—muckle moo'd Gilchrists they ca'ed them. It'll be your faither that you favour.’
And she turned him about for inspection with her hand.
‘Grandmother—’ began Winsome, anxious lest she should say something to offend the guest of the house. But the lady did not heed her gentle monition.
‘Was't you that ran awa' frae a bonny lass yestreen?’ she queried, sudden as a flash of summer lightning.
It was now the turn of both the younger folk to blush. Winsome reddened with vexation at the thought that he should think that she had seen him run and gone about telling of it. Ralph grew redder and redder, and remained speechless. He did not think of anything at all.
‘I am fond of exercise,’ he said falteringly.
The gay old lady rippled into a delicious silver stream of laughter, a little thin, but charmingly provocative. Winsome did not join, but she looked up imploringly at her grandmother, leaning her head back till her tresses swept the ground.
When Mistress Skirving recovered herself,
‘Exerceese, quo' he, heard ye ever the like o' that? In their young days lads o' speerit took their exerceese in comin' to see a bonny lass—juist as I was sayin' to Winifred yestreen nae faurer gane. Hoot awa', twa young folk! The simmer days are no lang. Waes me, but I had my share o' them! Tak' them while they shine, bankside an' burnside an' the bonny heather. Aince they bloomed for Ailie Gordon. Once she gaed hand in hand alang the braes, where noo she'll gang nae mair. Awa' wi' ye, ye're young an' honest. Twa auld cankered carles are no fit company for twa young folks like you. Awa' wi' ye; dinna be strange wi' his mither's bairn, say I—an' the guid man hae's spoken for the daddy o' him.’
Thus was Ralph Peden made free of the Big Hoose of Craig Ronald.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.