THE HILL GATE
There was no merry group outside Winsome's little lattice window this night, as she sat unclad to glimmering white in the quiet of her room. In her heart there was that strange, quiet thrill of expectancy—the resolve of a maiden's heart, when she knows without willing that at last the flood-gates of her being must surely be raised and the great flood take her to the sea. She did not face the thought of what she would say. In such a case a man plans what he will say, and once in three times he says it. But a woman is wiser. She knows that in that hour it will be given her what she shall speak.
‘I shall go to him,’ said Winsome to herself; ‘I must, for he is going away, and he has need of me. Can I let him go without a word?’
Though Ralph had done no noble action in her sight or within her ken, yet there was that about him which gave her the knowledge that she would be infinitely safe with him even to the world's end. Winsome wondered how she could so gladly go, when she would not have so much as dreamed of stealing out at night to meet any other, though she might have known him all her life. She did not know, often as she had heard it read, that ‘perfect love casteth out fear.’ Then she said to herself gently, as if she feared that the peeping roses at the window might hear, ‘Perhaps it is because I love him.’ Perhaps it was. Happy Winsome, to have found it out so young!
The curtain of the dark drew down. Moist airs blew into the room, warm with the scent of the flowers of a summer night. Honeysuckle and rose blew in, and quieted the trembling nerves of the girl going to meet her first love.
‘He has sair need o' me!’ she said, lapsing as she sometimes did into her grandmother's speech. ‘He will stand before me,’ she said, ‘and look so pale and beautiful. Then I will not let him come nearer—for a while—unless it is very dark and I am afraid.’
She glanced out. It promised to be very dark, and a tremour came over her. Then she clad herself in haste, drawing from a box a thin shawl of faded pale blue silk with a broad crimson edge, which she drew close about her shoulders. The band of red lying about her neck forced forward her golden tresses, throwing them about her brow so that they stood out round her face in a changeful aureole of fine-spun gold. She took a swift glance in the mirror, holding her candle in her hand. Then she laughed a nervous little laugh all to herself. How foolish of her! Of course, it would be impossible for him to see her. But nevertheless she put out her light, and went to the door smiling. She had no sense of doing that which she ought not to do; for she had been accustomed to her liberty in all matters whatsoever, ever since she came to Craig Ronald, and in the summer weather nothing was more common than for her to walk out upon the moor in the dewy close of day. She shut the door quietly behind her, and set her foot on the silent elastic turf, close cropped by many woolly generations. The night shut down behind her closer than the door. The western wind cooled her brain, and the singing in her heart rose into a louder altar-song. A woman ever longs to be giving herself. She rejoices in sacrifice. It is a pity that she so often chooses an indifferently worthy altar. Yet it is questionable whether her own pleasure in the sacrifice is any the less.
At the gate of the yard, which had been left open and hung backward perilously upon its hinges, she paused.
‘That is that careless girl, Jess!’ she said, practical even at such a moment.
And she was right—it was Jess who had so left it. Indeed, had she been a moment sooner, she might have seen Jess flit by, taking the downward road which led through the elder—trees to the waterside. As it was, she only shut the gate carefully, so that no night-wandering cattle might disturb the repose of her grandparents, laid carefully asleep by Meg in their low-ceilinged bedroom.
The whole farm breathed from its walls and broad yard spaces the peaceful rise and fall of an infant's repose. There was no sound about the warm and friendly place save the sleepy chunner of a hen on the bauks of the peat-house, just sufficiently awake to be conscious of her own comfort.
The hill road was both stony and difficult, but Winsome's light feet went along it easily and lightly. On not a single stone did she stumble. She walked so gladsomely that she trod on the air. There were no rocks in her path that night. Behind her the light in the west winked once and went out. Palpable darkness settled about her. The sigh of the waste moorlands, where in the haggs the wild fowl were nestling and the adders slept, came down over the well-pastured braes to her.
Winsome did not hasten. Why hasten, when at the end of the way there certainly lies the sweet beginning of all things. Already might she be happy in the possession of certainties? It never occurred to her that Ralph would not be at the trysting-place. That a messenger might fail did not once cross her mind. But maidenly tremours, delicious in their uncertainty, coursed along her limbs and through all her being. Could any one have seen, there was a large and almost exultant happiness in the depths of her eyes. Her lips were parted a little, like a child that waits on tiptoe to see the curtain rise on some wondrous and long- dreamed-of spectacle.
Soon against the darker sky the hill dyke stood up, looking in the gloom massive as the Picts' Wall of long ago. It followed irregularly the ridgy dips and hollows downward, till it ran into the intenser darkness of the pines. In a moment, ere yet she was ready, there before her was the gate of her tryst. She paused, affrighted for the first time. She listened, and there was no sound. A trembling came over her and an uncertainty. She turned, in act to flee.
But out of the dark of the great dyke stepped a figure cloaked from head to heel, and while Winsome wavered, tingling now with shame and fear, in an instant she was enclosed within two very strong arms, that received her as in a snare a bird is taken.
Suddenly Winsome felt her breath shorten. She panted as if she could not get air, like the bird as it nutters and palpitates.
‘Oh, I ought not to have come!’ she said, ‘but I could not help it!’
There was no word in answer, only a closer folding of the arms that cinctured her. In the west the dusk was lightening and the eyelid of the night drew slowly and grimly up.
When for the first time she looked shyly upward, Winsome found herself in the arms of Agnew Greatorix. Wrapped in his great military cloak, with a triumphant look in his handsome face, he smiled down upon her.
Great Lord of Innocence! give now this lamb of thine thy help!
The leaping soul of pure disembodied terror stood in Winsome's eyes. Fascinated like an antelope in the coils of a python she gazed, her eyes dilating and contracting—the world whirling about her, the soul of her bounding and panting to burst its bars.
‘Winsome, my darling!’ he said, ‘you have come to me. You are mine’—bending his face to hers.
Not yet had the power to speak or to resist come back to her, so instant and terrible was her surprise. But at the first touch of his lips upon her cheek the very despair brought back to her tenfold her own strength. She pushed against him with her hands, straining him from her by the rigid tension of her arms, setting her face far from his, but she was still unable to break the clasp of his arms about her.
‘Let me go! let me go!’ she cried, in a hoarse and labouring whisper.
‘Gently, gently, fair and softly, my birdie,’ said Greatorix; ‘surely you have not forgotten that you sent for me to meet you here. Well, I am here, and I am not such a fool as to come for nothing!’
The very impossibility of words steeled Winsome's heart,
‘I send for you!’ cried Winsome; ‘I never had message or word with you in my life to give you a right to touch me with your little finger. Let me go, and this instant, Agnew Greatorix!’
‘Winsome, sweetest girl, it pleases you to jest. Have not I your own letter in my pocket telling me where to meet you? Did you not write it? I am not angry. You can play out your play and pretend you do not care for me as much as you like; but I will not let you go. I have loved you too long, though till now you were cruel and would give me no hope. So when I got your letter I knew it was love, after all, that had been in your eyes as I rode away.’
‘Listen,’ said Winsome eagerly; ‘there is some terrible mistake; I never wrote a line to you—’
‘It matters not; it was to me that your letter came, brought by a messenger to the castle an hour ago. So here I am, and here you are, my beauty, and we shall just make the best of it, as lovers should when the nights are short.’
He closed his arms about her, forcing the strength out of her wrists with slow, rude, masculine muscles. A numbness and a deadness ran through her limbs as he compelled her nearer to him. Her head spun round with the fear of fainting. With a great effort she forced herself back a step from him, and just as she felt the breath of his mouth upon hers her heart made way through her lips.
‘Ralph! Ralph! Help me—help! Oh, come to me!’ she cried in her extremity of terror and the oncoming rigour of unconsciousness.
The next moment she dropped limp and senseless into the arms of Agnew Greatorix. For a long moment he held her up, listening to the echoes of that great cry, wondering whether it would wake up the whole world, or if, indeed, there were none to answer in that solitary place.
But only the wild bird wailed like a lost soul too bad for heaven, too good for hell, wandering in the waste forever.
Agnew Greatorix laid Winsome down on the heather, lifeless and still, her pure white face resting in a nest of golden curls, the red band of her mother's Indian shawl behind all.
But as the insulter stooped to take his will of her lips, now pale and defenceless, something that had been crouching beastlike in the heather for an hour, tracking and tracing him like a remorseless crawling horror, suddenly sprang with a voiceless rush upon him as he bent over Winsome's prostrate body—gripped straight at his throat and bore him backward bareheaded to the ground.
So unexpected was the assault that, strong man as Greatorix was, he had not the least chance of resistance. He reeled at the sudden constriction of his throat by hands that hardly seemed human, so wide was their clutch, so terrible the stringency of their grasp. He struck wildly at his assailant, but, lying on his back with the biting and strangling thing above him, his arms only met on one another in vain blows. He felt the teeth of a great beast meet in his throat, and in the sudden agony he sent abroad the mighty roar of a man in the grips of death by violence. But his assailant was silent, save for a fierce whinnying growl as of a wild beast greedily lapping blood.
It was this terrible outcry ringing across the hills that brought the farm steading suddenly awake, and sent the lads swarming about the house with lanterns. But it was Ralph alone who, having heard the first cry of his love and listened to nothing else, ran onward, bending low with a terrible stitch in his side which caught his breath and threw him to the ground almost upon the white-wrapped body of his love. Hastily he knelt beside her and laid his hand upon her heart. It was beating surely though faintly.
But on the other side, against the gray glimmer of the march dyke, he could see the twitchings of some great agony. At intervals there was the ghastly, half-human growling and the sobbing catch of some one striving for breath.
A light shone across the moor, fitfully wavering as the searcher cast its rays from side to side. Ralph glanced behind him with the instinct to carry his love away to a place of safety. But he saw the face of Meg Kissock, with slow Jock Forrest behind her carrying a lantern. Meg ran to the side of her mistress.
‘Wha's dune this?’ she demanded, turning fiercely to Ralph. ‘Gin ye—’
‘I know nothing about it. Bring the lantern here quickly,’ he said, leaving Winsome in the hands of Meg. Jock Forrest brought the lantern round, and there on the grass was Agnew Greatorix, with daft Jock Gordon above him, his sinewy hands gripping his neck and his teeth in his throat.
Ralph pulled Jock Gordon off and flung him upon the heather, where Jock Forrest set his foot upon him, and turned the light of the lantern upon the fierce face of a maniac, foam-flecked and blood- streaked. Jock still growled and gnashed his teeth, and struggled in sullen fury to get at his fallen foe. With his hat Ralph brought water from a deep moss-hole and dashed it upon the face of Winsome. In a little while, she began to sob in a heartbroken way. Meg took her head upon her knees, and soothed her mistress, murmuring tendernesses. Next he brought water to throw over the face and neck of Greatorix, which Jock Gordon in his fury had made to look like nothing human.
The rest might wait. It was Ralph's first care to get Winsome home. Kneeling down beside her he soothed her with whispered words, till the piteous sobbing in her throat stilled itself. The ploughman was at this moment stolidly producing pieces of rope from his pockets and tying up Jock Gordon's hands and feet; but after his first attempts again to fly at Greatorix, and his gasps of futile wrath when forced into the soft moss of the moor by Jock Forrest's foot, he had not offered to move.
His paroxysm was only one of the great spasms of madness which sometimes come over the innocently witless. He had heard close by him the cries of Winsome Charteris, whom he had worshipped for years almost in the place of the God whom he had not the understanding to know. The wonder rather was that he did not kill Greatorix outright. Had it happened a few steps nearer the great stone dyke, there is little doubt but that Jock Gordon would have beat out the assailant's brains with a ragged stone.
Winsome had not yet awakened enough to ask how all these things came about. She could only cling to Meg, and listen to Ralph whispering in her ear.
‘I can go home now,’ she said earnestly.
So Ralph and Meg helped her up, Ralph wrapping her in her great crimson-barred shawl.
Ralph would have kissed her, but Winsome, standing unsteadily clasping Meg's arm, said tenderly:
‘Not tonight. I am not able to bear it.’
It was almost midnight when Ralph and the silent Jock Forrest got Agnew Greatorix into the spring-cart to be conveyed to Greatorix Castle.
He lay with his eyes closed, silent. Ralph took Jock Gordon to the manse with him, determined to tell the whole to Mr. Welsh if necessary; but if it were not necessary, to tell no one more than he could help, in order to shelter Winsome from misapprehension. It says something for Ralph that, in the turmoil of the night and the unavailing questionings of the morning, he never for a moment thought of doubting his love. It was enough for him that in the depths of agony of body or spirit she had called out to him. All the rest would be explained in due time, and he could wait. Moreover, so selfish is love, that he had never once thought of Jess Kissock from the moment that his love's cry had pealed across the valley of the elder-trees and the plain of the water meadows.
When he brought Jock Gordon, hardly yet humanly articulate, into the kitchen of the manse, the house was still asleep. Then Ralph wakened Manse Bell, who slept above. He told her that Jock Gordon had taken a fit upon the moor, that he had found him ill, and brought him home. Next he went up to the minister's room, where he found Mr. Welsh reading his Bible. He did not know that the minister had watched him both come and go from his window, or that he had remained all night in prayer for the lad, who, he misdoubted, was in deep waters.
As soon as Jock Gordon had drunk the tea and partaken of the beef ham which Manse Bell somewhat grumblingly set before him, he said:
‘Noo, I'll awa'. The tykes'll be after me, nae doot, but it's no in yin o' them to catch Jock Gordon gin yince he gets into the Dungeon o' Buchan.’
‘But ye maun wait on the minister or Maister Peden. They'll hae muckle to ask ye, nae doot!’ said Bell, who yearned for news.
‘Nae doot, nae doot!’ said daft Jock Gordon, ‘an' I hae little to answer. It's no for me to tie the rape roond my ain craig. Na, na, time aneu' to answer when I'm afore the sherra at Kirkcudbright for this nicht's wark.’
With these words Jock took his pilgrim staff and departed for parts unknown. As he said, it was not bloodhounds that could catch Jock Gordon on the Rhinns of Kells.
In the morning there was word come to the cot-house of the Kissocks that Mistress Kissock was wanted up at the castle to nurse a gentleman who had had an accident when shooting. Mistress Kissock was unable to go herself, but her daughter Jess went instead of her, having had some practice in nursing, among other experiences which she had gained in England. It was reported that she made an excellent nurse.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.