THE RETURN OF EBIE FARRISH
Now Ebie Farrish had been over at the Nether Crae seeing the lassies there in a friendly way after the scene in the byre, for Galloway ploughmen were the most general of lovers. Ebie considered it therefore no disloyalty to Jess that he would display his watch-guard and other accomplishments to the young maids at the Crae. Nor indeed would Jess herself have so considered it. It was only Meg who was so particular that she did not allow such little practice excursions of this kind on the part of her young men.
When Ebie started to go home, it was just midnight. As he came over the Grannoch bridge he saw the stars reflected in the water, and the long stretches of the loch glimmering pearl grey in the faint starlight and the late twilight. He thought they looked as if they were running down hill. His thoughts and doings that day and night had been earthly enough. He had no regrets and few aspirations. But the coolness of the twilight gave him the sense of being a better man than he knew himself to be. Ebie went to sit under the ministrations of the Reverend Erasmus Teends at twelve by the clock on Sunday. He was a regular attendant. He always was spruce in his Sunday blacks. He placed himself in the hard pews so that he could have a view of his flame for the time being. As he listened to the minister he thought sometimes of her and of his work, and of the turnip-hoeing on the morrow, but oftenest of Jess, who went to the Marrow kirk over the hills. He thought of the rise of ten shillings that he would ask at the next half- year's term, all as a matter of course—just as Robert Jamieson the large farmer, thought of the rent day and the market ordinary, and bringing home the ‘muckle greybeard full of excellent Glenlivat from the Cross Keys on Wednesday. Above them both the Reverend Erasmus Teends droned and drowsed, as Jess Kissock said with her faculty for expression, ‘bummelin' awa like a bubbly-Jock or a bum-bee in a bottle.’
But coming home in the coolness of this night, the ploughman was, for the time being, purged of the grosser humours which come naturally to strong, coarse natures, with physical frames ramping with youth and good feeding. He stood long looking into the lane water, which glided beneath the bridge and away down to the Dee without a sound.
He saw where, on the broad bosom of the loch, the stillness lay grey and smooth like glimmering steel, with little puffs of night wind purling across it, and disappearing like breath from a new knife-blade. He saw where the smooth satin plane rippled to the first water-break, as the stream collected itself, deep and black, with the force of the water behind it, to flow beneath the bridge. When Ebie Farrish came to the bridge he was a material Galloway ploughman, satisfied with his night's conquests and chewing the cud of their memory.
He looked over. He saw the stars, which were perfectly reflected a hundred yards away on the smooth expanse, first waver, then tremble, and lastly break into a myriad delicate shafts of light, as the water quickened and gathered. He spat in the water, and thought of trout for breakfast. But the long roar of the rapids of the Dee came over the hill, and a feeling of stillness with it, weird and remote. Uncertain lights shot hither and thither under the bridge, in strange gleams of reflection. The ploughman was awed. He continued to gaze. The stillness closed in upon him. The aromatic breath of the pines seemed to cool him and remove him from himself. He had a sense that it was Sabbath morning, and that he had just washed his face to go to church. It was the nearest thing to worship he had ever known. Such moments come to the most material, and are their theology. Far off a solitary bird whooped and whinnied. It sounded mysterious and unknown, the cry of a lost soul. Ebie Farrish wondered where he would go to when he died. He thought this over for a little, and then he concluded that it were better not to dwell on this subject. But the crying on the lonely hills awed him. It was only a Jack snipe from whose belated nest an owl had stolen two eggs. But it was Ebie Farrish's good angel. He resolved that he would go seldomer to the village public o' nights, and that he would no more find cakes and ale sweet to his palate. It was a foregone conclusion that on Saturday night he would be there, yet what he heard and saw on Grannoch Bridge opened his sluggish eyes. Of a truth there was that in the world which had not been there for him before. It is to Jess Kissock's credit, that when Ebie was most impressed by the stillness and most under the spell of the night, he thought of her. He was only an ignorant, godless, good-natured man, who was no more moral than he could help; but it is both a testimonial and a compliment when such a man thinks of a woman in his best and most solemn moments.
At that moment Jess Kissock was putting Winsome Charteris's letter into her pocket.
There is no doubt that poor, ignorant Ebie, with his highly developed body and the unrestrained and irregular propensities of his rudimentary soul, was nearer the Almighty that night than his keen-witted and scheming sweetheart.
A trout leaped in the calm water, and Ebie stopped thinking of the eternities to remember where he had set a line. Far off a cock crew, and the well-known sound warned Ebie that he had better be drawing near his bed. He raised himself from the copestone of the parapet, and solemnly tramped his steady way up to the ‘onstead’ of Craig Ronald, which took shape before him as he advanced like a low, grey-bastioned castle. As he entered the low square on his way across to the stable door he was surprised to notice a gleam of light in the byre. Ebie thought that some tramps were trespassing on the good nature of the mistress of the house, and he had the feeling of loyalty to his master's interests which distinguished the Galloway ploughman of an older time. He was mortally afraid of bogles, and would not have crossed the kirkyard after the glimmer of midnight without seeing a dozen corpse- candles; but tramps were quite another matter, for Ebie was not in the least afraid of mortal man—except only of Allan Welsh, the Marrow minister.
So he stole on tiptoe to the byre door, circumnavigating the ‘wicket,’ which poured across the yard its tell-tale plank of light. Standing within the doorway and looking over the high wooden stall, tenanted in winter by Jock, the shaggy black bull, Ebie saw Jess Kissock, lost in her dreams. The lantern was set on the floor in front of her. The candle had nearly burned down to the socket. Jess's eyes were large and brilliant. It seemed to Ebie Farrish that they were shining with light. Her red lips were pouted, and there was a warm, unwonted flush on her cheeks. In her dreams she was already mistress of a house, and considering how she would treat her servants. She would treat them kindly and well. She had heard her sister, who was servant at Earlston, tell how the ladies there treated their servants. Jess meant to do just the same. She meant to be a real lady. Ambition in a woman has a double chance, for adaptation is inborn along with it. Most men do not succeed very remarkably in anything, because at heart they do not believe in themselves. Jess did. It was her heritage from some Pict, who held back under the covert of his native woods so long as the Roman tortoise crept along, shelved in iron, but who drave headlong into a gap with all his men, when, some accident of formation showed the one chance given in a long day's march.
Ebie thought he had never seen Jess so beautiful. It had never struck him before that Jess was really handsomer than Meg. He only knew that there was a stinging wild-fruit fragrance about Jess and her rare favours he had never experienced in the company of any other woman. And he had a large experience.
Was it possible that she knew that he was out and was waiting for him? In this thought, which slowly entered in upon his astonishment, the natural Ebie forced himself to the front.
‘Jess!’ he exclaimed impulsively, taking a step within, the door. Instantly, as though some night-flying bat had flown against it, the candle went out—a breath wafted by him as lightly and as silently as a snowy owl flies home in the twilight. A subtle something, the influence of a presence, remained, which mingled strangely with the odours of the clover in the neuk, and the sour night-smell of the byre. Again there was a perfect silence. Without, a corncrake ground monotonously. A rat scurried along the rafter. Ebie in the silence and the darkness had almost persuaded himself that he had been dreaming, when his foot clattered against something which fell over on the cobble-stones that paved the byre. He stopped and picked it up. It was the byre lantern. The wick was still glowing crimson when he opened the little tin door. As he looked it drew slowly upward into a red star, and winked itself out. It was no dream. Jess had been in the byre. To meet whom? he asked himself.
Ebie went thoughtfully up-stairs, climbing the stable ladder as the first twilight of the dawn was slowly pouring up from beneath into a lake of light and colour in the east, as water gushes from a strong well-eye.
‘Ye're a nice boy comin' to yer bed at this time o' the mornin',’ said Jock Forrest from his bunk at the other side.
‘Nicht-wanderin' bairns needs skelpin'!’ remarked Jock Gordon, who had taken up his abode in a vacant stall beneath.
‘Sleep yer ain sleeps, ye pair o' draft-sacks, in yer beds,’ answered Ebie Farrish without heat and simply as a conversational counter.
He did not know that he was quoting the earliest English classic. He had never heard of Chaucer.
‘What wad Jess say?’ continued Jock Forrest, sleepily.
‘Ask her,’ said Ebie sharply.
‘At any rate, I'm no gaun to be disturbit in my nicht's rest wi' the like o' you, Ebie Farrish! Ye'll eyther come hame in time o' nicht, or ye'll sleep elsewhere—up at the Crae, gin ye like.’
‘Mind yer ain business,’ retorted Ebie, who could think of nothing else to say.
Down below daft Jock Gordon, with some dim appropriateness was beginning his elricht croon of— ‘The devil sat on his ain lum-tap, Hech how—black and reeky—’ when Jock Forrest, out of all patience, cried out down to him: ‘Jock Gordon, gin ye begin yer noise at twa o'clock i' the mornin' I'll come down an' pit ye i' the mill-dam!’
‘Maybes ye'll be cryin' for me to pit you i' the mill-dam some warm day!’ said Jock Gordon grimly, ‘but I'se do naething o' the kind. I'll een bank up the fires an' gie ye a turn till ye're weel brandered. Ye'll girn for mill-dams then, I'm thinkin'!’
So, grumbling and threatening in his well-accustomed manner, Jock Gordon returned to the wakeful silence which he kept during the hours usually given to sleep. It was said, however, that he never really slept. Indeed, Ebie and Jock were ready to take their oath that they never went up and down that wooden ladder, from which three of the rounds were missing, without seeing Jock Gordon's eyes shining like a cat's out of the dark of the manger where, like an ape, he sat all night cross-legged.
As soon as Jess was by herself in the empty byre, to which she withdrew herself with the parcel which the faithful and trustworthy Cuif had entrusted to her, she lit the lantern which always stood in the inside of one of the narrow triangular wickets that admitted light into the byre. Sitting down on the small hay stall, she pulled the packet from her pocket, looked it carefully over, and read the simple address, ‘In care of Margaret Kissock.’ There was no other writing upon the outside.
Opening the envelope carefully, he let the light of the byre lantern rest on the missive. It was written in a delicate but strong handwriting—the hand of one accustomed to forming the smaller letters of ancient tongues into a current script. ‘To Mistress Winifred Charteris,’ it ran. ‘Dear Lady: That I have offended you by the hastiness of my words and the unforgivable wilfulness of my actions, I know, but cannot forgive myself. Yet, knowing the kindness of your disposition, I have thought that you might be better disposed to pardon me than I myself. For I need not tell you, what you already know, that the sight of you is dearer to me than the light of the morning. You are connected in my mind and heart with all that is best and loveliest. I need not tell now that I love you, for you know that I love the string of your bonnet. Nor am I asking for anything in return, save only that you may know my heart and not be angry. This I send to ease its pain, for it has been crying out all night long, 'Tell her— tell her!' So I have risen early to write this. Whether I shall send it or no, I cannot tell. There is no need, Winsome, to answer it, if you will only let it fall into your heart and make no noise, as a drop of water falls into the sea. Whether you will be angry or not I cannot tell, and, truth to tell you, sweetheart, I am far past caring. I am coming, as I said, to Craig Ronald to see your grandmother, and also, if you will, to see you. I shall not need you to tell me whether you are angered with a man's love or no; I shall know that before you speak to me. But keep a thought for one that loves you beyond all the world, and as if there were no world, and naught but God and you and him. For this time fare you well. Ralph Peden.’
Jess turned it over with a curious look on her face. ‘Aye, he has the grip o't, an' she micht get him gin she war as clever as Jess Kissock; but him that can love yin weel can lo'e anither better, an' I can keep them sindry. I saw him first, an' he spak to me first. 'Ye're no to think o' him,' said my mither. Think o' him! I hae thocht o' nocht else. Think of him! Since when is thinkin' a crime? A lass maun juist do the best she can for hersel', be she cotman's dochter or laird's. Love's a' yae thing— kitchen or byre, but or ben. See a lad, lo'e a lad, get a lad, keep a lad! Ralph Peden will kiss me afore the year's oot,’ she said with determination.
So in the corner of the byre, among the fragrant hay and fresh-cut clover, Jess Kissock the cottar's lass prophesied out of her wayward soul, baring her intentions to herself as perhaps her sister in boudoir hushed and perfumed might not have done. There are Ishmaels also among women, whose hand is against every woman, and who stand for their own rights to the man on whom they have set their love; and the strange thing is, that such are by no means the worst of women either.
Stranger still, so strong and dividing to soul and marrow is a clearly defined purpose and determinately selfish, that such women do not often fail. And indeed Jess Kissock, sitting in the hay- neuk, with her candle in the lantern throwing patterns on the cobwebby walls from the tiny perforations all round, made a perfectly correct prophecy. Ralph Peden did indeed kiss her, and that of his own free will as his love of loves within a much shorter space of time than a year.
Strangely also, Jess the gipsy, the dark-browed Pictess, was neither angry nor jealous when she read Ralph's letter to Winsome. According to all rules she ought to have been. She even tried to persuade herself that she was. But the sight of Ralph writing to Winsome gave no pang to her heart. Nor did this argue that she did not love really and passionately. She did; but Jess had in her the Napoleon instinct. She loved obstacles. So thus it was what she communed with herself, sitting with her hand on her brow, and her swarthy tangle of hair falling all about her face. All women have a pose in which they look best. Jess looked best leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. Had there been a fender at her father's fireside Jess would have often sat on it, for there is a dangerous species of girl that, like a cat, looks best sitting on a fender. And such a girl is always aware of the circumstance.
‘He has written to Winsome,’ Jess communed with herself. ‘Well, he shall write to me. He loves her, he thinks; then in time he shall love me, and be sure perfectly o't. Let me see. Gin she had gotten this letter, she wadna hae answered it. So he'll come the morn, an' he'll no say a word to her aboot the letter. Na, he'll juist look if she's pleased like, and gin that gomeral Saunders gied him the rose, he'll no be ill to please eyther! But afore he gangs hame he shall see Jess Kissock, an' hear frae her aboot the young man frae the Castle!’ Jess took another look at the letter.’ It's a bonny hand o' write,’ she said, ‘but Dominie Cairnochan learned me to write as weel as onybody, an' some day he'll write to me. I'se no be byre lass a' my life. Certes no. There's oor Meg, noo; she'll mairry some ignorant landward man, an' leeve a' her life in a cot hoose, wi' a dizzen weans tum'lin' aboot her! What yin canna learn, anither can,’ continued Jess. ‘I hae listened to graun' fowk speakin', an' I can speak as weel as onybody. I'll disgrace nane. Gin I canna mak' mysel' fit for kirk or manse, my name's no Jess Kissock. I'm nae country lump, to be left where I'm set doon, like a milkin' creepie, an' kickit ower when they are dune wi' me.’
It is of such women, born to the full power and passion of sex, and with all the delicate keenness of the feminine brain, utterly without principle or scruple, that the Cleopatras are made. For black-browed Egypt, the serpent of old Nile, can sit in a country byre, and read a letter to another woman. For Cleopatra is not history; she is type.
AT THE BARN END
In a little while the cows were all milked. Saunders was standing at the end of the barn, looking down the long valley of the Grannoch water. There was a sweet coolness in the air, which he vaguely recognized by taking off his hat.
‘Open the yett!’ cried Jess, from the byre door. Saunders heard the clank and jangle of the neck chains of Hornie and Specky and the rest, as they fell from their necks, loosened by Jess's hand. The sound grew fainter and fainter as Jess proceeded to the top of the byre where Marly stood soberly sedate and chewed her evening cud. Now Marly did not like Jess, therefore Meg always milked her; she would not, for some special reason of her own, ‘let doon her milk’ when Jess laid a finger on her. This night she only shook her head and pushed heavily against Jess as she came.
‘Hand up there, ye thrawn randy!’ said Jess in byre tones.
And so very sulkily Marly moved out, looking for Meg right and left as she did so. She had her feelings as well as anyone, and she was not the first who had been annoyed by the sly, mischievous gipsy with the black eyes, who kept so quiet before folk. As she went out of the byre door, Jess laid her switch smartly across Marly's loins, much to the loss of dignity of that stately animal, who, taking a hasty step, slipped on the threshold, and overtook her neighbours with a slow resentment gathering in her matronly breast.
When Saunders Mowdiewort heard the last chain drop in the byre, and the strident tones of Jess exhorting Marly, he took a few steps to the gate of the hill pasture. He had to pass along a short home-made road, and over a low parapetless bridge constructed simply of four tree-trunks laid parallel and covered with turf. Then he dropped the bars of the gate into the hill pasture with a clatter, which came to Winsome's ears as she stood at her window looking out into the night. She was just thinking at that moment what a good thing it was that she had sent back Ralph Peden's poem. So, in order to see whether this were so or not, she repeated it all over again to herself.
When he came back again to the end of the barn, Saunders found Jess standing there, with the wistful light in her eyes which that young woman of many accomplishments could summon into them as easily as she could smile. For Jess was a minx—there is no denying the fact. Yet even slow Saunders admitted that, though she was nothing to Meg, of course, still there was something original and attractive about her—like original sin.
Jess was standing with her head on one side, putting the scarlet head of a poppy among her black hair. Jess had strange tastes, which would be called artistic nowadays in some circles. Her liking was always bizarre and excellent, the taste of the primitive Galloway Pict from whom she was descended, or of that picturesque Glenkens warrior, who set a rowan bush on his head on the morning when he was to lead the van at the battle of the Standard. Scotland was beaten on that great occasion, it is true; but have the chroniclers, who complain of the place of Galloway men in the ranks, thought how much more terribly Scotland might have been beaten had Galloway not led the charge? But this is written just because Jess Kissock, a Galloway farm lassie, looked something like a cast back to the primitive Pict of the south, a fact which indeed concerns the story not at all, for Saunders Mowdiewort had not so much as ever heard of a Pict.
Jess did not regard Saunders Mowdiewort highly at any time. He was one of Meg's admirers, but after all he was a man, and one can never tell. It was for this reason that she put the scarlet poppy into her hair.
She meditated ‘I maybe haena Meg's looks to the notion o' some folk, but I mak' a heap better use o' the looks that I hae, an' that is a great maitter!’
‘Saunders,’ said Jess softly, going up to the Cuif and pretending to pick a bit of heather off his courting coat. She did this with a caressing touch which soothed the widower, and made him wish that Meg would do the like. He began to think that he had never properly valued Jess.
‘Is Meg comin' oot again?’ Jess inquired casually, the scarlet poppy set among the blue-black raven's wings, and brushing his beard in a distracting manner.
Saunders would hare given a good deal to be able to reply in the affirmative, but Meg had dismissed him curtly after the milking, with the intimation that it was time he was making manseward. As for her, she was going within doors to put the old folks to bed.
After being satisfied on this point the manner of Jess was decidedly soothing. That young woman had a theory which was not quite complimentary either to the sense or the incorruptibility of men. It was by showing an interest in them and making them think that they (or at least the one being operated upon) are the greatest and most fascinating persons under the sun, almost anything can be done. This theory has been acted upon with results good and bad, in other places besides the barn end of Craig Ronald.
‘They're a' weel at the Manse?’ said Jess, tentatively.
‘On aye,’ said Saunders, looking round the barn end to see if Meg could see him. Satisfied that Meg was safe in bed, Saunders put his hand on Jess's shoulder—the sleek-haired, candle-greased deceiver that he was.
‘Jess, ye're bonny,’ said he.
‘Na, na,’ said Jess, very demurely, ‘it's no me that's bonny—its Meg!’
Jess was still looking at him, and interested in getting all the rough wool off the collar of his homespun coat.
The Samson of the graveyard felt his strength deserting him.
‘Davert, Jess lass, but it's a queer thing that it never cam across me that ye were bonny afore!’
Jess looked down. The Cuif thought that it was because she was shy, and his easy heart went out to her; but had he seen the smile that was wasted on a hopping sparrow beneath, and especially the wicked look in the black eyes, he might have received some information as to the real sentiments of girls who put red poppies in their hair in order to meet their sisters' sweethearts at the barn end.
‘Is the young minister aye bidin' at the Manse?’ asked Jess.
‘Aye, he is that!’ said Saunders, ‘he's a nice chiel' yon. Ye'll see him whiles ower by here. They say—that is Manse Bell says— that he's real fond o' yer young mistress here. Ken ye ocht aboot that, Jess?’
‘Hoots, havers, our young mistress is no for penniless students, I wot weel. There'll be nocht in't, an' sae ye can tell Bell o' the Manse, gin you an' her is so chief [intimate].’
‘Very likely ye're richt. There'll be nocht in't, I'm thinkin'—at least on her side. But what o' the young man? D'ye think he's sair ta'en up aboot Mistress Winsome? Meg was sayin' so.’
‘Meg thinks there's naebody worth lookin' at in the warl' but hersel' and Mistress Winifred Charteris, as she ca's hersel'; but there's ithers thinks different.’
‘What hae ye against her, Jess? I thocht that she's a fell fine young leddy.’
‘Oh she's richt eneuch, but there's bonny lasses as weel as her; an' maybe, gin young Maister Peden comes ower by to Craig Ronald to see a lass nnkenned o' a'—what faut wad there be in that?’
‘Then it's Meg he comes to see, and no' the young mistress?’ said the alarmed grave-digger.
‘Maybes aye an' maybes no—there's bonny lasses forby Meg Kissock for them that hae gotten een in their heads.’
‘Wi' Jess! Is't yerself?’ said Saunders.
Jess was discreetly silent.
‘Ye'll no tell onybody, wull ye, Maister Mowdiewort?’ she said anxiously.
To Saunders this was a great deal better than being called a ‘Cuif.’
‘Na, Jess, lass, I'll no tell a soul—no yin.’
‘No' even Meg -mind!’ repeated Jess, who felt that this was a vital point.
So Saunders promised, though he had intended to do so on the first opportunity.
‘Mind, if ye do, I'll never gie ye a hand wi' Meg again as lang as I leeve!’ said Jess emphatically.
‘Jess, d'ye think she likes me?’ asked the widower in a hushed whisper.
‘Saunders, I'm juist sure o't,’ replied Jess with great readiness. ‘But she's no yin o' the kind to let on.’
‘Na,’ groaned Saunders, ‘I wuss to peace she was. But ye mind me that I gat a letter frae the young minister that I was to gie to Meg. But as you're the yin he comes to see, I maun as weel gie't direct to yoursel'.’
‘It wad be as weel,’ said Jess, with a strange sort of sea-fire like moonshine in her eyes.
Saunders passed over a paper to her readily, and Jess, with her hand still on his coat-collar, in a way that Meg had never used, thanked him in her own way.
‘Juist bide a wee,’ she said; ‘I'll be wi' ye in a minute!’
Jess hurried down into the old square-plotted garden, which ran up to the orchard trees. She soon found a moss-rose bush from which she selected a bud, round which the soft feathery envelope was just beginning to curl back. Then she went round by the edge of the brook which keeps damp one side of the orchard, where she found some single stems of forget-me-nots, shining in the dusk like beaded turquoise. She pulled some from the bottom of the half-dry ditch, and setting the pale moss-rosebud in the middle, she bound the whole together with a striped yellow and green withe. Then snipping the stacks with her pocket scissors, she brought the posy to Saunders, with instructions to wrap it in a dock-leaf and never to let his hands touch it the whole way.
Saunders, dazed and fascinated, forgetful even of Meg and loyalty, promised. The glamour of Jess, the gypsy, was upon him.
‘But what am I to say,’ he asked.
‘Say its frae her that he sent the letter to; he'll ken brawly that Meg hadna the gumption to send him that!’ said Jess candidly.
Saunders said his good-night in a manner which would certainly have destroyed all his chances with Meg had she witnessed the parting. Then he stolidly tramped away down the loaning.
Jess called after him, struck with a sudden thought. ‘See that ye dinna gie it to him afore the minister.’
Then she put her hands beneath her apron and walked home meditating. ‘To be a man is to be a fool,’ said Jess Kissock, putting her whole experience into a sentence. Jess was a daughter of the cot; put then she was also a daughter of Eve, who had not even so much as a cot.
A DAUGHTER OF THE PICTS
The Cuif put his hands in his pockets as if to keep them away from the dangerous temptation of touching Meg. He stood with his shoulder against the wall and chewed a straw.
‘What's come o' Maister Peden thae days?’ asked Meg.
‘He's maist michty unsettled like,’ replied Saunders, ‘he's for a' the world like a stirk wi' a horse cleg on him that he canna get at. He comes in an' sits doon at his desk, an' spreads oot his buiks, an' ye wad think that he's gaun to be at it the leevelang day. But afore ye hae time to turn roon' an' get at yer ain wark, the craitur'll be oot again an' awa' up to the hill wi' a buik aneath his oxter. Then he rises early in the mornin', whilk is no a guid sign o' a learned man, as I judge. What for should a learned man rise afore his parritch is made? There maun be something sair wrang,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort.
‘Muckle ye ken aboot learned men. I suppose, ye think because ye carry up the Bible, that ye ken a' that's in't,’ returned Meg, with a sneer of her voice that might have turned milk sour. The expression of the emotions is fine and positive in the kitchens of the farm towns of Galloway.
‘Swish, swish!’ steadily the white streams of milk shot into the pails. ‘Jangle, jangle!’ went the steel head chains of the cows. Occasionally, as Jess and Meg lifted their stools, they gave Flecky or Speckly a sound clap on the back with their hand or milking-pail, with the sharp command of ‘Stan' aboot there!’ ‘Haud up!’ ‘Mind whaur yer comin'!’ Such expressions as these Jess and Meg could interject into the even tenor of their conversation, in a way that might have been disconcerting in dialogues conducted on other principles. But really the interruptions did not affect Ebie Farrish or any other of the byre-visiting young men, any more than the rattling of the chains, as Flecky and Speckly arranged their own business at the end devoted to imports. These sharp words of command were part of the nightly and morningly ceremony of the ‘milking’ at every farm. The cans could no more froth with the white reaming milk without this accompaniment of slaps and adjurations than Speckly, Flecky, and the rest could take their slow, thoughtfully considerate, and sober way from the hill pastures into the yard without Meg at the gate of the field to cry: ‘Hurley, Hurley, hie awa' hame!’ to the cows themselves; and ‘Come awa' bye wi' them, fetch them, Roger!’ to the short-haired collie, who knew so much better than to go near their flashing heels.
The conversation in the byre proceeded somewhat in this way:
Jess was milking her last cow, with her head looking sideways at Ebie, who stood plaiting Marly's tail in a newfangled fashion he had brought from the low end of the parish, and which was just making its way among young men of taste.
‘Aye, ye'll say so, nae doot,’ said Jess, in reply to some pointed compliment of her admirer; ‘but I ken you fowk frae the laich end ower weel. Ye hae practeesed a' that kind o' talk on the lasses doon there, or ye wadna be sae gleg wi't to me, Ebie.’
This is an observation which shows that Jess could not have eaten more effectively of the tree of knowledge, had she been born in Mayfair.
Ebie laughed a laugh half of depreciation, half of pleasure, like a cat that has its back stroked and its tail pinched at the same time.
‘Na, na, Jess, it a' comes by natur'. I never likit a lassie afore I set my een on you,’ said Ebie, which, to say the least of it, was curious, considering that he had an assortment of locks of hair—black, brown, and lint-white—up in the bottom of his ‘kist’ in the stable loft where he slept. He kept them along with his whipcord and best Sunday pocket knife, and sometimes he took a look at them when he had to move them in order to get his green necktie. ‘I never really likit a lass afore, Jess, ye may believe me, for I wasna a lad to rin after them. But whenever I cam' to Craig Ronald I saw that I was dune for.’
‘Stan’ back, ye muckle slabber! said Jess, suddenly and emphatically, in a voice that could have been heard a hundred yards away. Speckly was pushing sideways against her as if to crowd her off her stool.
‘Say ye sae, Ebie?’ she added, as if she had not previously spoken, in the low even voice in which she had spoken from the first, and which could be heard by Ebie alone. In the country they conduct their love-making in water-tight compartments. And though Ebie knew very well that the Cuif was there, and may have suspected Jock Forrest, even after his apparent withdrawal, so long as they did not trouble him in his conversation with Jess, he paid no heed to them, nor indeed they to him. No man is his brother's keeper when he goes to the byre to plait cows' tails.
‘But hoo div ye ken, or, raither, what gars ye think that ye're no the first that I hae likit, Jess?’
‘Oh, I ken fine,’ said Jess, who was a woman of knowledge, and had her share of original sin.
‘But hoo div ye ken?’ persisted Ebie.
‘Fine that,’ said Jess, diplomatically.
‘But tell us, Jess,’ said Ebie, who was in high good humour at these fascinating accusations.
‘Oh,’ said Jess, with a quick gipsy look out of her fine dark eyes, ‘brawly I kenned on Saturday nicht that yon wasna the first time ye had kissed a lass!’
‘Jess,’ said Ebie, ‘ye're a wunnerfu' woman!’ which was his version of Ralph's ‘You are a witch.’ In Ebie's circle ‘witch’ was too real a word to be lightly used, so he said ‘wunnerfu' woman.’
He went on looking critically at Jess, as became so great a connoisseur of the sex.
‘I hae seen, maybes, bonnier faces, as ye micht say—’
‘Haud aff, wi’ ye there; mind whaur yer comin’ ye muckle senseless nowt!’ said Jess to her Ayrshire Hornie, who had been treading on her toes.
‘As I was sayin', Jess, I hae seen—’
‘Can y no unnderstan’, ye senseless lump?’ cried Jess, warningly; ‘I'll knock the heid aff ye, gin ye dinna drap it!’ still to Hornie, of course.
But the purblind theorist went on his way: ‘I hae seen bonnier faces, but no mair takin', Jess, than yours. It's no aye beauty that tak's a man, Jess, ye see, an' the lassies that hae dune best hae been plain-favoured lassies that had pleasant expressions—’
‘Tell the rest to Hornie gin ye like!’ said Jess, rising viciously and leaving Ebie standing there dumfounded. He continued to hold Hornie's tail for some time, as if he wished to give her some further information on the theory of beauty, as understood in the ‘laich’ end of the parish.
Saunders saw him from afar, and cried out to him down the length of the byre,
‘Are ye gaun to mak' a watch-guard o' that coo's tail, Ebie?—ye look fell fond o't.’
‘Ye see what it is to be in love,’ said John Scott, the herd, who had stolen to the door unperceived and so had marked Ebie's discomfiture.
‘He disna ken the difference between Jess hersel' an' Hornie!’ said the Cuif, who was repaying old scores.
WHEN THE KYE COMES HAME
That night Saunders went up over the hill again, dressed in his best. He was not a proud lover, and he did not take a rebuff amiss; besides, he had something to tell Meg Kissock. When he got to Craig Ronald, the girls were in the byre at the milking, and at every cow's tail there stood a young man, rompish Ebie Farrish at that at which Jess was milking, and quiet Jock Forrest at Meg's. Ebie was joking and keeping up a fire of running comment with Jess, whose dark-browed gipsy face and blue-black wisps of hair were set sideways towards him, with her cheek pressed upon Lucky's side, as she sent the warm white milk from her nimble fingers, with a pleasant musical hissing sound against the sides of the milking-pail.
Farther up the byre, Meg leaned her head against Crummy and milked steadily. Apparently she and Jock Forrest were not talking at all. Jock looked down and only a quiver of the corner of his beard betrayed that he was speaking. Meg, usually so outspoken and full of conversation, appeared to be silent; but really a series of short, low-toned sentences was being rapidly exchanged, so swiftly that no one, standing a couple of yards away, could have remarked the deft interchange.
But as soon as Saunders Mowdiewort came to the door, Jock Forrest had dropped Crummy's tail, and slipped silently out of the byre, even before Meg got time to utter her usual salutation of--
‘Guid een to ye, Cuif! Hoo's a' the session?’
It might have been the advent of Meg's would-be sweetheart that frightened Jock Forrest away, or again he might have been in the act of going in any case. Jock was a quiet man who walked sedately and took counsel of no one. He was seldom seen talking to any man, never to a woman—least of all to Meg Kissock. But when Meg had many ‘lads’ to see her in the evening, he could be observed to smile an inward smile in the depths of his yellow beard, and a queer subterranean chuckle pervaded his great body, so that on one occasion Jess looked up, thinking that there were hens roosting in the baulks overhead.
Jess and Ebie pursued their flirtation steadily and harmlessly, as she shifted down the byre as cow after cow was relieved of her richly perfumed load, rumbling and clinking neck chains, and munching in their head-stalls all the while. Saunders and Meg were as much alone as if they had been afloat on the bosom of Loch Grannoch.
‘Ye are a bonny like man,’ said Meg, ‘to tak' yer minny to speak for ye before the session. Man, I wonder at ye. I wonder ye didna bring her to coort for ye?’
‘War ye ever afore the Session, Meg?’
‘Me afore the session—ye're a fule man, but ye dinna ken what yer sayin'—gin I thocht ye did—’
Here Meg became so violently agitated that Flecky, suffering from the manner in which Meg was doing her duty, kicked out, and nearly succeeded in overturning the milk-pail. Meg's quickness with hand and knee foiled this intention, but Flecky succeeded quite in planting the edge of her hoof directly on the Cuif's shin-bone. Saunders thereupon let go Flecky's tail, who instantly switched it into Meg's face with a crack like a whip.
‘Ye great muckle senseless hullion!’ exclaimed Meg, ‘gin ye are nae use in the byre, gang oot till ye can learn to keep haud o' a coo's tail! Ye hae nae mair sense than an Eerishman!’
There was a pause. The subject did not admit of discussion, though Saunders was a cuif, he knew when to hold his tongue—at least on most occasions.
‘An' what brocht ye here the nicht, Cuif?’ asked Meg, who, when she wanted information, knew how to ask it directly, a very rare feminine accomplishment.
‘To see you, Meg, my dawtie,’ replied Saunders, tenderly edging nearer.
‘Yer what?’ queried Meg with asperity; ‘I thocht that ye had aneuch o' the session already for caa'in' honest fowk names; gin ye begin wi' me, ye'll get on the stool o' repentance o' yer ain accord, afore I hae dune wi' ye!’
‘But, Meg, I hae telled ye afore that I am sair in need o' a wife. It's byordinar' [extraordinary] lonesome up in the hoose on the hill. An' I'm warned oot, Meg, so that I'll look nae langer on the white stanes o' the kirkyaird.’
‘Gin ye want a wife, Saunders, ye'll hae to look oot for a deef yin, for it's no ony or'nar' woman that could stand yer mither's tongue. Na, Saunders, it wad be like leevin' i' a corn-mill rinnin' withoot sheaves.’
‘Meg,’ said Saunders, edging up cautiously, ‘I hae something to gie ye!’
‘Aff wi' ye, Cuif! I'll hae nae trokin' wi' lads i' the byre—na, there's a time for everything—especial wi' widowers, they're the warst o' a'—they ken ower muckle. My granny used to say, gin Solomon couldna redd oot the way o' a man wi' a maid, what wad he hae made o' the way o' a weedower that's lookin' for his third?
THE CUIF BEFORE THE SESSION
‘Called, nominate, summoned to appear, upon this third citation, Alexander Mowdiewort, or Moldieward, to answer for the sin of misca'in' the minister and session o' this parish, and to show cause why he, as a sectary notour, should not demit, depone, and resign his office of grave digger in the kirk-yard of this parish with all the emoluments, benefits, and profits thereto appertaining.—Officer, call Alexander Mowdiewort!’
Thus Jacob Kittle, schoolmaster and session clerk of the parish of Dullarg, when in the kirk itself that reverent though not revered body was met in full convocation. There was presiding the Rev. Erasmus Teends himself, the minister of the parish, looking like a turkey-cock with a crumpled white neckcloth for wattles. He was known in the parish as Mess John, and was full of dignified discourse and excellent taste in the good cheer of the farmers. He was a judge of nowt [cattle], and a connoisseur of black puddings, which he considered to require some Isle of Man brandy to bring out their own proper flavour.
‘Alexander Moldieward, Alexander Moldieward!’ cried old Snuffy Callum, the parish beadle, going to the door. Then in a lower tone, ‘Come an' answer for't, Saunders.’
Mowdiewort and a large-boned, grim-faced old woman of fifty-five were close beside the door, but Christie cried past them as if the summoned persons were at the top of the Dullarg Hill at the nearest, and also as if he had not just risen from a long and confidential talk with them.
It was within the black interior of the old kirk that the session met, in the yard of which Saunders Mowdiewort had dug so many graves, and now was to dig no more, unless he appeased the ire of the minister and his elders for an offence against the majesty of their court and moderator.
‘Alexander Moldieward!’ again cried the old ‘betheral,’ very loud, to someone on the top of the Dullarg Hill—then in an ordinary voice, ‘come awa', Saunders man, you and your mither, an' dinna keep them waitin'—they're no chancy when they're keepit.’
Saunders and his mother entered.
‘Here I am, guid sirs, an' you Mess John,’ said the grave-digger very respectfully, ‘an' my mither to answer for me, an' guid een to ye a'.’
‘Come awa', Mistress Mowdiewort,’ said the minister. ‘Ye hae aye been a guid member in full communion. Ye never gaed to a prayer- meetin' or Whig conventicle in yer life. It's a sad peety that ye couldna keep your flesh an' bluid frae companyin' an' covenantin' wi' them that lichtly speak o' the kirk.’
‘'Deed, minister, we canna help oor bairns—an' 'deed ye can speak till himsel'. He is of age—ask him! But gin ye begin to be ower sair on the callant, I'se e'en hae to tak' up the cudgels mysel'.’
With this, Mistress Mowdiewort put her hands to the strings of her mutch, to feel that she had not unsettled them; then she stood with arms akimbo and her chest well forward like a grenadier, as if daring the session to do its worst.
‘I have a word with you,’ said Mess John, lowering at her; ‘it is told to me that yon keepit your son back from answering the session when it was his bounden duty to appear on the first summons. Indeed, it is only on a warrant for blasphemy and the threat of deprivation of his livelihood that he has come today. What have you to say that he should not be deprived and also declarit excommunicate?’
‘Weel, savin' yer presence, Mess John,’ said Mistress Mowdiewort, ‘ye see the way o't is this: Saunders, my son, is a blate man, an' he canna weel speak for him sel'. I thought that by this time the craiter micht hae gotten a wife again that could hae spoken for him, an' had he been worth the weight o' a bumbee's hind leg he wad hae had her or this—an' a better yin nor the last he got. Aye, but a sair trouble she was to me; she had juist yae faut, Saunders's first wife, an' that was she was nae use ava! But it was a guid thing he was grave-digger, for he got her buriet for naething, an' even the coffin was what ye micht ca' a second-hand yin—though it had never been worn, which was a wunnerfu' thing. Ye see the way o't was this: There was Creeshy Callum, the brither o' yer doitit auld betheral here, that canna tak' up the buiks as they should (ye should see my Saunders tak' them up at the Marrow kirk)—’
‘Woman,’ said the minister, ‘we dinna want to hear—’
‘Very likely no—but ye hae gien me permission to speak, an' her that's stannin afore yer honourable coort, brawly kens the laws. Elspeth Mowdiewort didna soop yer kirk an wait till yer session meetings war ower for thirty year in my ain man's time withoot kennin' a' the laws. A keyhole's a most amazin' convenient thing by whiles, an' I was suppler in gettin' up aff my hunkers then than at the present time.’
‘Silence, senseless woman!’ said the session clerk.
‘I'll silence nane, Jacob Kittle; silence yersel', for I ken what's in the third volume o' the kirk records at the thirty second page; an' gin ye dinna haud yer wheesht, dominie, ilka wife in the pairish'll ken as weel as me. A bonny yin you to sit cockin' there, an' to be learnin' a' the bairns their caritches [catechism].’
The session let her go her way; her son meantime stood passing an apologetic hand over his sleek hair, and making deprecatory motions to the minister, when he thought that his mother was not looking in his direction.
‘Aye, I was speakin' aboot Creeshy Callum's coffin that oor Saunders—the muckle tongueless sumph there got dirt cheap—ye see Greeshy had been measured for't, but, as he had a short leg and a shorter, the joiner measured the wrang leg—joiners are a' dottle stupid bodies—an' whan the time cam' for Creeshy to be streekit, man, he wadna fit—na, it maun hae been a sair disappointment till him—that is to say—gin he war in the place whaur he could think wi' ony content on his coffin, an' that, judgin' by his life an' conversation, was far frae bein' a certainty.’
‘Mistress Mowdiewort, I hae aye respectit ye, an' we are a' willin' to hear ye noo, if you have onything to say for your son, but you must make no insinuations against any members of the court, or I shall be compelled to call the officer to put you out,’ said the minister, rising impressively with his hand stretched towards Mistress Elspeth Mowdiewort.
But Elspeth Mowdiewort was far from being impressed.
‘Pit me oot, Snuffy Callum; pit me, Eppie Mowdiewort, oot! Na, na, Snuffy's maybe no very wise, but he kens better nor that. Man, Maister Teends, I hae kenned the hale root an' stock o' thae Callums frae first to last; I hae dung Greeshy till he couldna stand—him that had to be twice fitted for his coffin; an' Wull that was hangit at Dumfries for sheep-stealin'; an' Meg that was servant till yersel—aye, an' a bonny piece she was as ye ken yersel'; an' this auld donnert carle that, when he carries up the Bibles, ye can hear the rattlin' o' his banes, till it disturbs the congregation—I hae dung them a' heeds ower heels in their best days—an' to tell me at the hinner end that ye wad ca' in the betheral to pit oot Elspeth Mowdiewort! Ye maun surely hae an awsome ill wull at the puir auld craitur!’
‘Mither,’ at last said Saunders, who was becoming anxious for his grave-diggership, and did not wish to incense his judges further, ‘I'm willin' to confess that I had a drap ower muckle the ither night when I met in wi' the minister an' the dominie; but, gin I confess it, ye'll no gar me sit on the muckle black stool i' repentance afore a' the fowk, an' me carries up the buiks i' the Marrow kirk.’
‘Alexander Mowdiewort, ye spak ill o' the minister an' session, o' the kirk an' the wholesome order o' this parish. We have a warrant for your apprehension and appearance which we might, unless moved by penitence and dutiful submission, put in force. Then are ye aware whaur that wad land you—i' the jail in Kirkcudbright toon, my man Saunders.’
But still it was the dread disgrace of the stool of repentance that bulked most largely in the culprit's imagination.
‘Na, na,’ interjected Mistress Mowdiewort, ‘nae siccan things for ony bairns o' mine. Nae son o' mine sall ever set his hurdies on the like o't.’
‘Be silent, woman!’ said the minister severely; ‘them that will to black stool maun to black stool. Rebukit an' chastised is the law an' order, and rebukit and chastised shall your son be as weel as ithers.’
‘'Deed, yer nae sae fond o' rebukin' the great an' the rich. There's that young speldron frae the castle; its weel kenned what he is, an' hoo muckle he's gotten the weight o'.’
‘He is not of our communion, and not subject to our discipline,’ began the minister.
‘Weel,’ said Elspeth, ‘weel, let him alane. He's a Pape, an' gaun to purgatory at ony gate. But then there's bletherin' Johnnie o' the Dinnance Mains—he's as fu' as Solway tide ilka Wednesday, an' no only speaks agin minister an' session, as maybe my Saunders did (an' maybe no), but abuses Providence, an the bellman, an' even blasphemes agin the fast day—yet I never heard that ye had him cockit up on the black henbauks i' the kirk. But then he's a braw man an' keeps a gig!’
‘The law o' the kirk is no respecter of persons,’ said Mess John.
‘No, unless they are heritors,’ said Cochrane of the Holm, who had a pew with the name of his holding painted on it.
‘Or members o' session,’ said sleeky Carment of the Kirkland, who had twice escaped the stool of repentance on the ground that, as he urged upon the body, ‘gleds shouldna pike gleds een oot.’
‘Or parish dominies,’ said the session clerk, to give solidarity to his own position.
‘Weel, I ken juist this if nae mair: my son disna sit on ony o' yer stools o' repentance,’ said Eppie Mowdiewort, demonstrating the truth of her position with her hand clenched at the dominie, who, like all clerks of ecclesiastical assemblies, was exceedingly industrious in taking notes to very small purpose. ‘Mair nor that, I'm maybe an unlearned woman, but I've been through the Testaments mair nor yince—the New Testament mair nor twice—an' I never saw naethin' aboot stools o' repentance in the hoose o' God. But my son Saunders was readin' to me the ither nicht in a fule history buik, an' there it said that amang the Papists they used to hae fowk that didna do as they did an' believe as they believed. Sae wi' a lang white serk on, an' a can'le i' their hands, they set them up for the rabble fowk to clod at them, an' whiles they tied them to a bit stick an' set lunt to them—an that's the origin o' yer stool o' repentance. What say ye to that?’
Mrs. Mowdiewort's lecture on church history was not at all appreciated by the session. The minister rose.
‘We will close this sederunt,’ he said; ‘we can mak' nocht o' these two. Alexander Mowdiewort, thou art removed from thy office of grave-digger in the parish kirkyard, and both thysel' and thy mother are put under suspension for contumacy!’
‘Haith!’ said Elspeth Mowdiewort, pushing back her hair; ‘did ye ever hear the mak' o' the craitur. I haena been within his kirk door for twenty year. It's a guid job that a body can aye gang doon to godly Maister Welsh, though he's an awfu' body to deave ye wi' the Shorter Quastions.’
‘An it's a guid thing,’ added Saunders, ‘that there's a new cemetery a-makkin'. There's no room for anither dizzen in yer auld kailyaird onyway—an' that I'm tellin' ye. An' I'm promised the new job too. Ye can howk yer ain graves yersel's.’
‘Fash na yer heid, Saunders, aboot them,’ said the old betheral at the door; ‘it's me that's to be grave-digger, but ye shall howk them a' the same in the mornin', an' get the siller, for I'm far ower frail—ye can hae them a' by afore nine o'clock, an' the minister disna pu' up his bedroom blind till ten!’
Thus it was that Saunders Mowdiewort ended his connection with an Erastian establishment, and became a true and complete member of the Marrow kirk. His mother also attended with exemplary diligence, but she was much troubled with a toothache on the days of catechising, and never quite conquered her unruly member to the last. But this did not trouble herself much—only her neighbours.
ON THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD
But Agnew Greatorix came as often as ever to Craig Ronald. Generally he found Winsome busy with her household affairs, sometimes with her sleeves buckled above her elbows, rolling the tough dough for the crumpy farles of the oat-cake, and scattering handfuls of dry meal over it with deft fingers to bring the mass to its proper consistency for rolling out upon the bake-board. Leaving his horse tethered to the great dismounting stone at the angle of the kitchen (a granite boulder or ‘travelled stone,’ as they said thereabouts), with an iron ring into it, he entered and sat down to watch. Sometimes, as today, he would be only silent and watchful; but he never failed to compass Winsome with the compliment of humility and observance. It is possible that better things were stirring in his heart than usually brought him to such places. There is no doubt, indeed, that he appreciated the frankness and plain speech which he received from the very practical young mistress of Craig Ronald.
When he left the house it was Agnew Greatorix's invariable custom to skirt the edge of the orchard before mounting. Just in the dusk of the great oak-tree, where its branches mingle with those of the gean [wild cherry], he was met by the slim, lithe figure of Jess Kissock, in whose piquant elvishness some strain of Romany blood showed itself.
Jess had been waiting for him ever since he had taken his hat in his hand to leave the house. As he came in sight of the watcher, Agnew Greatorix stopped, and Jess came closer to him, motioning him imperiously to bring his horse close in to the shadow of the orchard wall. Agnew did so, putting out his arm as if he would kiss her; but, with a quick fierce movement, Jess thrust his hand away.
‘I have told you before not to play these tricks with me—keep them for them that ye come to Craig Ronald to see. It's the mistress ye want. What need a gentleman like you meddle with the maid?’
‘Impossible as it may seem, the like has been done,’ said Agnew, smiling down at the black eyes and blowing elf locks.
‘Not with this maid,’ replied Jess succinctly, and in deed she looked exceedingly able to take care of herself, as became Meg Kissock's sister.
‘I'll go no further with Winsome,’ said Greatorix gloomily, breaking the silence. ‘You said that if I consulted her about the well-being of the poor rats over at the huts, and took her advice about the new cottages for the foresters, she would listen to me. Well, she did listen, but as soon as I hinted at any other subject, I might as well have been talking to the old daisy in the sitting-room with the white band round her head.’
‘Did anybody ever see the like of you menfolk?’ cried Jess, throwing up her hands hopelessly; ‘d'ye think that a bonny lass is just like a black ripe cherry on a bough, ready to drap into your mooth when it pleases your high mightinesses to hold it open?’
‘Has Winsome Charteris any sweetheart?’ asked the captain.
‘What for wad she be doing with a sweetheart? She has muckle else to think on. There's a young man that's baith braw an' bonny, a great scholar frae Enbra' toon that comes gye an' aften frae the manse o' Dullarg, whaur he's bidin' a' the simmer for the learnin'. He comes whiles, an' Winsome kind o' gies him a bit convoy up the hill.’
‘Jess Kissock,’ said the young man passionately, ‘tell me no lies, or—’
‘Nane o' yer ill tongue for me, young man; keep it for yer mither. I'm little feared o' ye or ony like ye. Ye'll maybe get a bit dab frae the neb o' a jockteleg that will yeuk [tickle] ye for a day or twa gin ye dinna learn an' that speedily, as Maister Welsh wad say, to keep yer Han's aff my faither's dochter.’ Jess's good Scots was infinitely better and more vigorous than the English of the lady's maid.
‘I beg your pardon, Jess. I am a passionate, hasty man. I am sure I meant no harm. Tell me more of this hulking landlouper , and I'll give you a kiss.’
‘Keep yer kisses for them that likes them. The young man's no landlouper ony mair nor yersel'—no as mickle indeed, but a very proper young man, wi' a face as bonny as an angel—’
‘But, Jess, do you mean to say that you are going to help him with Winsome?’ asked the young man.
‘Feint a bit!’ answered the young woman frankly. ‘She'll no get him gin I can help it. I saw him first and bid him guid-day afore ever she set her een on him. It's ilka yin for hersel' when it comes to a braw young man,’ and Jess tossed her gipsy head, and pouted a pair of handsome scarlet lips.
Greatorix laughed. ‘The land lies that way, does it?’ he said. ‘Then that's why you would not give me a kiss today, Jess,’ he went on; ‘the black coat has routed the red baith but an' ben—but we'll see. You cannot both have him, Jess, and if you are so very fond of the parson, ye'll maybe help me to keep Winsome Charteris to myself.’
‘Wad ye mairry her gin ye had the chance, Agnew Greatorix?’
‘Certainly; what else?’ replied the young man promptly.
‘Then ye shall hae her,’ replied Jess, as if Winsome were within her deed of gift,
‘And you'll try for the student, Jess?’ asked the young man. ‘I suppose he would not need to ask twice for a kiss?’
‘Na, for I would kiss him withoot askin'—that is, gin he hadna the sense to kiss ME,’ said Jess frankly.
‘Well,’ said Greatorix, somewhat reluctantly, ‘I'm sure I wish you joy of your parson. I see now what the canting old hound from the Dullarg Manse meant when he tackled me at the loaning foot. He wanted Winsome for the young whelp.’
‘I dinna think that,’ replied Jess; ‘he disna want him to come aboot here ony mair nor you.’
‘How do you know that, Jess?’
‘Ou, I juist ken.’
‘Can you find out what Winsome thinks herself?’
‘I can that, though she hasna a word to say to me—that am far mair deservin' o' confidence than that muckle peony faced hempie, Meg, that an ill Providence gied me for a sis ter. Her keep a secret?—the wind wad waft it oot o' her.’ Thus affectionately Jess.
‘But how can you find out, then?’ persisted the young man, yet unsatisfied.
‘Ou fine that,’ said Jess. ‘Meg talks in her sleep.’
Before Agnew Greatorix leaped on to his horse, which all this time had stood quiet on his bridle-arm, only occasionally jerking his head as if to ask his master to come away, he took the kiss he had been denied, and rode away laughing, but with one cheek much redder than the other, the mark of Jess's vengeance.
‘Ye hae ower muckle conceit an' ower little sense ever to be a richt blackguard,’ said Jess as he went, ‘but ye hae the richt intention for the deil's wark. Ye'll do the young mistress nae hurt, for she wad never look twice at ye, but I cannot let her get the bonny lad frae Embra'-na, I saw him first, an' first come first served!’
‘Where have you been so long,’ asked her mistress, as she came in.
‘Juist drivin' a gilravagin' muckle swine oot o' the orchard!’ replied Jess with some force and truth.
CAPTAIN AGNEW GREATORIX
Greatorix Castle sat mightily upon a hill. It could not be hid, and it looked down superciliously upon the little squiredom of Craig Ronald, as well as upon farms and cottages a many. In days not so long gone by, Greatorix Castle had been the hold of the wearers of the White Cockade, rough riders after Lag and Sir James Dalzyell, and rebels after that, who had held with Derwentwater and the prince. Now there was quiet there. Only the Lady Elizabeth and her son Agnew Greatorix dwelt there, and the farmer's cow and the cottager's pig grazed and rooted unharmed—not always, however, it was whispered, the farmer's daughter, for of all serfdoms the droit du seignior is the last to die. Still, Greatorix Castle was a notable place, high set on its hill, shires and towns beneath, the blue breath of peat reek blowing athwart the plain beneath and rising like an incense about.
Here the Lady Elizabeth dwelt in solemn but greatly reduced state. She was a woman devoted to the practice of holiness according to the way of the priest. It was the whole wish of her life that she might keep a spiritual director, instead of having Father Mahon to ride over from Dumfries once a month.
Within the castle there were many signs of decay—none of rehabilitation. The carpets were worn into holes where feet had oftenest fallen, and the few servants dared not take them out to be beaten in the due season of the year, for indubitably they would fall to pieces. So the curtains hung till an unwary stranger would rest upon them with a hand's weight. Then that hand plucked a palmbreadth away of the rotten and moth-eaten fabric.
There was an aged housekeeper at Greatorix Castle, who dwelt in the next room to the Lady Elizabeth, and was supposed to act as her maid. Mistress Humbie, however, was an exacting person; and being an aged woman, and her infirmities bearing upon her, she considered it more fitting that the Lady Elizabeth should wait upon her. This, for the good of her soul, the Lady Elizabeth did. Two maids and a boy, a demon boy, in buttons, who dwelt below stairs and gave his time to the killing of rats with ingenious catapults and crossbows, completed the household—except Agnew Greatorix.
The exception was a notable one. Save in the matter of fortune, Nature had not dealt unhandsomely with Agnew Greatorix; yet just because of this his chances of growing up into a strong and useful man were few. He had been nurtured upon expectations from his earliest youth. His uncle Agnew, the Lady Elizabeth's childless brother, who for the sake of the favour of a strongly Protestant aunt had left the mother church of the Greatorix family, had been expected to do something for Agnew; but up to this present time he had received only his name from him, in lieu of all the stately heritages of Holywood in the Nith Valley hard by Lincluden, and Stennesholm in Carrick.
So Agnew Greatorix had grown up in the midst of raw youths who were not his peers in position. He companied with them till his mother pointed out that it was not for a Greatorix to drink in the Blue Bell and at the George with the sons of wealthy farmers and bonnet lairds. By dint of scraping and saving which took a long time, and influence which, costing nothing, took for a Greatorix no time at all, the Lady Elizabeth obtained for her son a commission in the county yeomanry. There he was thrown with Maxwells of the Braes, Herons from the Shireside, and Gordons from the northern straths—all young men of means and figure in the county. Into the midst of these Agnew took his tightly knit athletic figure, his small firmly set head and full-blooded dark face—the only faults of which were that the eyes were too closely set together and shuttered with lids that would not open more than half way, and that he possessed the sensual mouth of a man who has never willingly submitted to a restraint. Agnew Greatorix could not compete with his companions, but he cut them out as a squire of dames, and came home with a dangerous and fascinating reputation, the best-hated man in the corps.
So when Captain Agnew clattered through the village in clean-cut scarlet and clinking spurs, all the maids ran to the door, except only a few who had once run like the others but now ran no more. The captain came often to Craig Ronald. It was upon his way to kirk and market, for the captain for the good of his soul went occasionally to the little chapel of the Permission at Dumfries. Still oftener he came with the books which the Lady Elizabeth obtained from Edinburgh, the reading of which she shared with Mistress Walter Skirving, whose kinship with the Lochinvars she did not forget, though her father had been of the moorland branch of that honourable house, and she herself had disgraced her ancient name by marrying with a psalm-singing bonnet laird. But the inexplicability of saying whom a woman may not take it into her head to marry was no barrier to the friendship of the Lady Elizabeth, who kept all her religion for her own consumption and did not even trouble her son with it—which was a great pity, for he indeed had much need, though small desire, thereof.
On the contrary, it was a mark of good blood sometimes to follow one's own fancy. The Lady Elizabeth had done that herself against the advice of the countess her mother, and that was the reason why she dwelt amid hangings that came away in handfuls, and was waiting-maid to Mistress Humbie her own housekeeper.
Agnew Greatorix had an eye for a pretty face, or rather for every pretty face. Indeed, he had nothing else to do, except clean his spurs and ride to the market town. So, since the author of Waverley began to write his inimitable fictions, and his mother to divide her time between works of devotion and the adventures of Ivanhoe and Nigel, Agnew Greatorix had made many pilgrimages to Craig Ronald. Here the advent of the captain was much talked over by the maids, and even anticipated by Winsome herself as a picturesque break in the monotony of the staid country life. Certainly he brought the essence of strength and youth and athletic energy into the quiet court-yard, when he rode in on his showily paced horse and reined him round at the low steps of the front door, with the free handling and cavalry swing which he had inherited as much from the long line of Greatorixes who had ridden out to harry the Warden's men along the marches, as from the yeomanry riding-master.
Now, the captain was neither an obliging nor yet a particularly amiable young man, and when he took so kindly to fetching and carrying, it was not long before the broad world of farm towns and herds' cot-houses upon which Greatorix Castle looked down suspected a motive, and said so in its own way.
On one occasion, riding down the long loaning of Craig Ronald, the captain came upon the slight, ascetic figure of Allan Welsh, the Marrow minister, leaning upon the gate which closed the loaning from the road. The minister observed him, but showed no signs of moving. Agnew Greatorix checked his horse.
‘Would you open the gate and allow me to pass on my way?’ he said, with chill politeness. The minister of the Marrow kirk looked keenly at him from under his grey eyebrows.
‘After I have had a few words with you, young sir,’ said Mr. Welsh.
‘I desire no words with you,’ returned the young man impatiently, backing his horse.
‘For whom are your visits at Craig Ronald intended?’ said the minister calmly. ‘Walter Skirving and his spouse do not receive company of such dignity; and besides them there are only the maids that I know of.’
‘Who made you my father confessor?’ mocked Agnew Greatorix, with an unpleasant sneer on his handsome face.
‘The right of being minister in the things of the Spirit to all that dwell in Craig Ronald House,’ said the minister of the Marrow firmly.
‘Truly a pleasant ministry, and one, no doubt, requiring frequent ministrations; yet do I not remember to have met you at Craig Ronald,’ he continued. ‘So faithful a minister surely must be faithful in his spiritual attentions.’
He urged his horse to the side of the gate and leaned over to open the gate himself, but the minister had his hand firmly on the latch.
‘I have seen you ride to many maids' houses, Agnew Greatorix, since the day your honoured father died, but never a one have I seen the better of your visits. Woe and sorrow have attended upon your way. You may ride off now at your ease, but beware the vengeance of the God of Jacob; the mother's curse and the father's malison ride not far behind!’
‘Preach me no preachments,’ said the young man; ‘keep such for your Marrow folk on Sundays; you but waste your words.’
‘Then I beseech you by the memory of a good father, whom, though of another and an alien communion, I shall ever respect, to cast your eyes elsewhere, and let the one ewe lamb of those whom God hath stricken alone.’
The gate was open now, and as he came through, Agnew Greatorix made his horse curvet, pushing the frail form of the preacher almost into the hedge.
A STRING OF THE LILAC SUNBONNET
For a long time they were silent, though it was not long before Winsome drew away her hand, which, however, continued to burn consciously for an hour afterwards. Silence settled around them. The constraint of speech fell first upon Ralph, being town-bred and accustomed to the convenances at Professor Thriepneuk's.
‘You rise early,’ he said, glancing shyly down at Winsome, who seemed to have forgotten his presence. He did not wish her to forget. He had no objection to her dreaming, if only she would dream about him.
Winsome turned the bewildering calmness of her eyes upon him. A gentleman, they say, is calm-eyed. So is a cow. But in the eye of a good woman there is a peace which comes from many generations of mothers—who, every one Christs in their way, have suffered their heavier share of the Eden curse.
Ralph would have given all that he possessed—which, by the way, was not a great deal—to be able to assure himself that there was any hesitancy or bashfulness in the glance which met his own. But Winsome's eyes were as clearly and frankly blue as if God had made them new that morning. At least Ralph looked upon their Sabbath peace and gave thanks, finding them very good.
A sparkle of laughter, at first silent and far away, sprang into them, like a breeze coming down Loch Grannoch when it lies asleep in the sun, sending shining sparkles winking shoreward, and causing the wavering golden lights on the shallow sand of the bays to scatter tremulously. So in the depths of Winsome's eyes glimmered the coming smile. Winsome could be divinely serious, but behind there lay the possibility and certainty of very frank earthly laughter. If, as Ralph thought, not for the first time in this rough island story, this girl were an angel, surely she was one to whom her Maker had given that rarest gift given to woman— a well-balanced sense of humour.
So when Ralph said, hardly knowing what he said, ‘You rise early,’ it was with that far-away intention of a smile that Winsome replied:
‘And you, sir, have surely not lagged in bed, or else you have come here in a great hurry.’
‘I rose,’ returned Ralph, ‘certainly betimes—in fact, a great while before day; it is the time when one can best know one's self.’
The sententiousness, natural to his years and education, to some extent rebuked Winsome, who said more soberly:
‘Perhaps you have again lost your books of study?’
‘I do not always study in books,’ answered Ralph.
Winsome continued to look at him as though waiting his explanation.
‘I mean,’ said Ralph, quickly, his pale cheek touched with red, ‘that though I am town-bred I love the things that wander among the flowers and in the wood. There are the birds, too, and the little green plants that have no flowers, and they all have a message, if I could only hear it and understand it.’
The sparkle in Winsome's eyes quieted into calm.
‘I too—’ she began, and paused as if startled at what she was about to say. She went on: ‘I never heard anyone say things like these. I did not know that anyone else had thoughts like these except myself.’
‘And have you thought these things?’ said Ralph, with a quick joy in his heart.
‘Yes,’ replied Winsome, looking down on the ground and playing with the loose string of the lilac sunbonnet. ‘I used often to wonder how it was that I could not look on the loch on Sabbath morning without feeling like crying. It was often better to look upon it than to go to Maister Welsh's kirk. But I ought not to say these things to you,’ she said, with a quick thought of his profession.
Ralph smiled. There were few things that Winsome Charteris might not say to him. He too had his experiences to collate.
‘Have you ever stood on a hill-top as though you were suspended in the air, and when you seem to feel the earth whirling away from beneath you, rushing swiftly eastward towards the sunrise?’
‘I have heard it,’ said Winsome unexpectedly.
‘Heard it?’ queried Ralph, with doubt in his voice.
‘Yes,’ said Winsome calmly, ‘I have often heard the earth wheeling round on still nights out on the top of the Craigs, where there was no sound, and all the house was asleep. It is as if some Great One were saying 'Hush!' to the angels—I think God himself!’
These were not the opinions of the kirk of the Marrow; neither were they expressed in the Acts Declaratory or the protests or claims of right made by the faithful contending remnant. But Ralph would not at that moment have hesitated to add them to the Westminster Confession.
It is a wonderful thing to be young. It is marvellously delightful to be young and a poet as well, who has just fallen—nay, rather, plunged fathoms—deep in love. Ralph Peden was both. He stood watching Winsome Charteris, who looked past him into a distance moistly washed with tender ultramarine ash, like her own eyes too full of colour to be gray and too pearly clear to be blue.
An equal blowing wind drew up the loch which lay beneath flooded with morning light, the sun basking on its broad expanse, and glittering in a myriad sparkles on the, narrows beneath them beside which the blanket-washing had been. A frolicsome breeze blew down the hill towards them in little flicks and eddies. One of these drew a flossy tendril of Winsome's golden hair, which this morning had red lights in it like the garnet gloss on ripe wheat or Indian corn, and tossed it over her brow. Ralph's hand tingled with the desire to touch it and put it back under her bonnet, and his heart leaped at the thought. But though he did not stir, nor had any part of his being moved save the hidden thought of his heart, he seemed to fall in his own estimation as one who had attempted a sacrilege.
‘Have you ever noticed,’ continued Winsome, all unconscious, going on with that fruitful comparison of feelings which has woven so many gossamer threads into three-fold cords, ‘how everything in the fields and the woods is tamer in the morning? They seem to have forgotten that man is their natural enemy while they slept.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Ralph theologically, ‘when they awake they forget that they are not still in that old garden that Adam kept.’
Winsome was looking at him now, for he had looked away in his turn, lost in a poet's thought. It struck her for the first time that other people might think him handsome. When a girl forgets to think whether she herself is of this opinion, and begins to think what others will think on a subject like this (which really does not concern her at all), the proceedings in the case are not finished.
They walked on together down by the sunny edge of the great plantation. The sun was now rising well into the sky, climbing directly upward as if on this midsummer day he were leading a forlorn hope to scale the zenith of heaven. He shone on the russet tassels of the larches, and the deep sienna boles of the Scotch firs. The clouds, which rolled fleecy and white in piles and crenulated bastions of cumulus, lighted the eyes of the man and maid as they went onward upon the crisping piny carpet of fallen fir-needles.
‘I have never seen Nature so lovely,’ said Ralph, ‘as when the bright morning breaks after a night of shower. Everything seems to have been new bathed in freshness.’
‘As if Dame Nature had had her spring cleaning,’ answered Winsome, ‘or Andrew Kissock when he has had his face washed once a week,’ who had been serious long enough, and who felt that too much earnestness even in the study of Nature might be a dangerous thing.
But the inner thought of each was something quite different. This is what Ralph thought within his heart, though his words were also perfectly genuine:
‘There is a dimple on her chin which comes out when she smiles,’ so he wanted her to smile again. When she did so, she was lovely enough to peril the Faith or even the denomination.
Ralph tried to recollect if there were no more stiles on this hill path over which she might have to be helped. He had taken off his hat and walked beside her bareheaded, carrying his hat in the hand farthest from Winsome, who was wondering how soon she would be able to tell him that he must keep his shoulders back.
Winsome was not a young woman of great experience in these matters, but she had the natural instinct for the possibilities of love without which no woman comes into the world—at once armour defensive and weapon offensive. She knew that one day Ralph Peden would tell her that he loved her, but in the meantime it was so very pleasant that it was a pity the days should come to an end. So she resolved that they should not, at least not just yet. If tomorrow be good, why confine one's self to today? She had not yet faced the question of what she would say to him when the day could be no longer postponed. She did not care to face it. Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof, is quite as excellent a precept as its counterpart, or at least so Winsome Charteris thought. But, all the same, she wished that she could tell him to keep his shoulders back.
A sudden resolve sprang full armed from her brain. Winsome had that strange irresponsibility sometimes which comes irresistibly to some men and women in youth, to say something as an experiment which she well knew she ought not to say, simply to see what would happen. More than once it had got her into trouble.
‘I wish you would keep back your shoulders when you walk!’ she said, quick as a flash, stopping and turning sideways to face Ralph Peden.
Ralph, walking thoughtfully with the student stoop, stood aghast, as though not daring to reply lest his ears had not heard aright.
‘I say, why do you not keep your shoulders back?’ repeated Winsome sharply, and with a kind of irritation at his silence.
He had no right to make her feel uncomfortable, whatever she might say.
‘I did not know—I thought—nobody ever told me,’ said Ralph, stammering and catching at the word which came uppermost, as he had done in college when Professor Thriepneuk, who was as fierce in the class-room as he was mild at home, had him cornered upon a quantity.
‘Well, then,’ said Winsome, ‘if everyone is so blind, it is time that someone did tell you now.’
Ralph squared himself like a drill-sergeant, holding himself so straight that Winsome laughed outright, and that so merrily that Ralph laughed too, well content that the dimple on her cheek should play at hide and seek with the pink flush of her clear skin.
So they had come to the stile, and Ralph's heart beat stronger, and a nervous tension of expectation quivered through him, bewildering his judgment. But Winsome was very clear-headed, and though the white of her eyes was as dewy and clear as a child's, she was no simpleton. She had read many men and women in her time, for it is the same in essence to rule Craig Ronald as to rule Rome.
‘This is your way,’ she said, sitting down on the stile. ‘I am going up to John Scott's to see about the lambs. It will be breakfast-time at the manse before you got back.’
Ralph's castle fell to the ground.
‘I will come up with you to John Scott's,’ he said with an undertone of eagerness.
‘Indeed, that you will not,’ said Winsome promptly, who did not want to arrive at seven o'clock in the morning at John Scott's with any young man. ‘You will go home and take to your book, after you have changed your shoes and stockings,’ she said practically.
‘Well, then, let me bid you good-bye, Winsome!’ said Ralph.
Her heart was warm to hear him say Winsome—for the first time. It certainly was not unpleasant, and there was no need that she should quarrel about that. She was about to give him her hand, when she saw something in his eye.
‘Mind, you are not to kiss it as you did grannie's yesterday; besides, there are John Scott's dogs on the brow of the hill,’ she said, pointing upward.
Poor Ralph could only look more crestfallen still. Such knowledge was too high for him. He fell back on his old formula:
‘I said before that you are a witch—’
‘And you say it again?’ queried Winsome, with careless nonchalance, swinging her bonnet by its strings. ‘Well, you can come back and kiss grannie's hand some other day. You are something of a favourite with her.’
But she had presumed just a hair-breadth too far on Ralph's gentleness. He snatched the lilac sunbonnet out of her hands, tearing, in his haste, one of the strings off, and leaving it in Winsome's hand. Then he kissed it once and twice outside where the sun shone on it, and inside where it had rested on her head. ‘You have torn it,’ she said complainingly, yet without anger.
‘I am very glad,’ said Ralph Peden, coming nearer to her with a light in his eye that she had never seen before.
Winsome dropped the string, snatched up the bonnet, and fled up the hill as trippingly as a young doe towards the herd's cottage. At the top of the fell she paused a moment with her hand on her side, as if out of breath. Ralph Peden was still holding the torn bonnet-string in his hand.
He held it up, hanging loose like a pennon from his hand. She could hear the words come clear up the hill:
‘I'm very—glad—that—I—tore—it, and I will come and—see— your—grandmother!’
‘Of all the—’ Winsome stopped for want of words, speaking to herself as she turned away up the hill—‘of all the insolent and disagreeable—’
She did not finish her sentence, as she adjusted the outraged sunbonnet on her curls, tucking the remaining string carefully within the crown; but as she turned again to look, Ralph Peden was calmly folding tip the string and putting it in a book.
‘I shall never speak to him again as long as I live,’ she said, compressing her lips so that a dimple that Ralph had never seen came out on the other side. This, of course, closed the record in the case. Yet in a little while she added thoughtfully: ‘But he is very handsome, and I think he will keep his shoulders back now. Not, of course, that it matters, for I am never to speak to him any more!’
John Scott's dogs were by this time leaping upon her, and that worthy shepherd was coming along a steep slope upon the edges of his boot-soles in the miraculous manner, which is peculiar to herds, as if he were walking on the turnpike.
Winsome turned for the last time. Against the broad, dark sapphire expanse of the loch, just where the great march dyke stepped off to bathe in the summer water, she saw something black which waved a hand and sprang over lightly.
Winsome sighed, and said a little wistfully yet not sadly:
‘Who would have thought it of him? It just shows!’ she said. All which is a warning to maids that the meekest worm may turn.
True love is at once chart and compass. It led Ralph Peden out into a cloudy June dawning. It was soft, amorphous, uncoloured night when he went out. Slate-coloured clouds were racing along the tops of the hills from the south. The wind blew in fitful gusts and veering flaws among the moorlands, making eddies and back-waters of the air, which twirled the fallen petals of the pear and cherry blossoms in the little manse orchard.
As he stepped out upon the moor and the chill of dawn struck inward, he did not know that Allan Welsh was watching him from his blindless bedroom. Dawn is the testing-time of the universe. Its cool, solvent atmosphere dissolves social amenities. It is difficult to be courteous, impossible to be polite, in that hour before the heart has realized that its easy task of throwing the blood horizontally to brain and feet has to be exchanged for the harder one of throwing it vertically to the extremities.
Ralph walked slowly and in deep thought through the long avenues of glimmering beeches and under the dry rustle of the quivering poplars. Then, as the first red of dawn touched his face, he looked about him. He was clear of the trees now, and the broad open expanse of the green fields and shining water meadows that ring in Loch Grannoch widened out before him. The winds sighed and rumbled about the hill-tops of the Orchar and the Black Laggan, but in the valley only the cool moist wind of dawn drew largely and statedly to and fro.
Ralph loved Nature instinctively, and saw it as a townbred lad rarely does. He was deeply read in the more scientific literature of the subject, and had spent many days in his Majesty's botanic gardens, which lie above the broad breast of the Forth. He now proved his learning, and with quick, sure eye made it real on the Galloway hills. Every leaf spoke to him. He could lie for half a day and learn wisdom from the ant. He took in the bird's song and the moth's flight. The keepers sometimes wondered at the lights which flashed here and there about the plantations, when in the coolness of a moist evening he went out to entrap the sidelong- dashing flutterers with his sugar-pots.
But since he came to Galloway, and especially since he smelled the smell of the wood-fire set for the blanket-washing above the Crae Water bridge, there were new secrets open to him. He possessed a voice that could wile a bird off a bough. His inner sympathy with wild and tame beasts alike was such that as he moved quietly among a drowsing, cud-chewing herd on the braes of Urioch not a beast moved.
Among them a wild, untamed colt stood at bay, its tail arched with apprehension, yet sweeping the ground, and watched him with flashing eyes of suspicion. Ralph held out his hand slowly, more as if it were growing out of his side by some rapid natural process than as if he were extending it. He uttered a low ‘sussurrus’ of coaxing and invitation, all the while imperceptibly decreasing his distance from the colt. The animal threw back its head, tossed its mane in act to flee, thought better of it and dropped its nose to take a bite or two of the long coarse grass. Then again it looked up and continued to gaze, fascinated at the beckoning and caressing fingers. At last, with a little whinny of pleasure, the colt, wholly reassured, came up and nestled a wet nose against Ralph's coat. He took the wild thing's neck within the arch of his arm, and the two new friends stood awhile in grave converse.
A moment afterwards Ralph bent to lay a hand upon the head of one of the placid queys that had watched the courtship with full, dewy eyes of bovine unconcern. Instantly the colt charged into the still group with a wild flourish of hoofs and viciously snapping teeth, scattering the black-polled Galloways like smoke. Then, as if to reproach Ralph for his unfaithfulness, he made a circle of the field at a full, swinging gallop, sending the short turf flying from his unshod hoofs at every stride. Back he came again, a vision of floating mane and streaming tail, and stopped dead three yards from Ralph, his forelegs strained and taut, ploughing furrows in the grass. As Ralph moved quietly across the field the colt followed, pushing a cool moist nose over the young man's shoulder. When at last Ralph set a foot on the projecting stone which stood out from the side of the grey, lichen-clad stone dyke, the colt stood stretching an eager head over as though desirous of following him; then, with a whinny of disappointment, he rushed round the field, charging at the vaguely wondering and listlessly grazing cattle with head arched between his forelegs and a flourish of widely distributed heels.
Over the hill, Craig Ronald was still wrapped in the lucid impermanence of earliest dawn, when Winsome Charteris set her foot over the blue flag-stones of the threshold. The high tide of darkness, which, in these northern summer mornings never rose very high or lasted very long, had ebbed long ago. The indigo grey of the sky was receding, and tinging towards the east with an imperceptibly graded lavender which merged behind the long shaggy outline of the piny ridge into a wash of pale lemon yellow.
The world paused, finger on lip, saying ‘Hush!’ to Winsome as she stepped over the threshold from the serenely breathing morning air, from the illimitable sky which ran farther and farther back as the angels drew the blinds from the windows of heaven.
‘Hush!’ said the cows over the hedge, blowing fragrant breaths of approval from their wide, comma-shaped nostrils upon the lush grass and upon the short heads of white clover, as they stood face to the brae, all with their heads upward, eating their way like an army on the march.
‘Hush! hush!’ said the sheep who were straggling over the shorter grass of the High Park, feeding fitfully in their short, uneasy way—crop, crop, crop—and then a pause, to move forward their own length and begin all over again.
But the sheep and the kine, the dewy grass and the brightening sky, might every one have spared their pains, for it was in no wise in the heart of Winsome Charteris to make a noise amid the silences of dawn. Meg Kissock, who still lay snug by Jess in a plump-cheeked country sleep, made noise enough to stir the country side when, rising, she set briskly about to get the house on its morning legs. But Winsome was one of the few people in this world —few but happy—to whom a sunrise is more precious than a sun set —rarer and more calming, instinct with message and sign from a covenant-keeping God. Also, Winsome betook herself early to bed, and so awoke attuned to the sun's rising.
What drew her forth so early this June day was no thought or hope or plan except the desire to read the heart of Nature, and perhaps that she might not be left too long alone with the parable of her own heart. A girl's heart is full of thought which it dares not express to herself—of fluttering and trembling possibilities, chrysalis-like, set aside to await the warmth of an unrevealed summer. In Winsome's soul the first flushing glory of the May of youth was waking the prisoned life. But there were throbs and thrillings too piercingly sweet to last undeveloped in her soul. The bursting bud of her healthful beauty, quickened by the shy radiance of her soul, shook the centres of her life, even as a laburnum-tree mysteriously quivers when the golden rain is in act to break from the close-clustered dependent budlets.
Thus it was that, at the stile which helps the paths between the Dullarg and Craig Ronald to overleap the high hill dyke, Ralph met Winsome. As they looked into one another's eyes, they saw Nature suddenly dissolve into confused meaninglessness. There was no clear message for either of them there, save the message that the old world of their hopes and fears had wholly passed away. Yet no new world had come when over the hill dyke their hands met. They said no word. There is no form of greeting for such. Eve did not greet Adam in polite phrase when he awoke to find her in the dawn of one Eden day, a helpmeet meet for him. Neither did Eve reply that ‘it was a fine morning.’ It is always a fine morning in Eden. They were silent, and so were these two. Their hands lay within one another a single instant. Then, with a sense of something wanting, Ralph sprang lightly over the dyke as an Edinburgh High-School boy ought who had often played hares and hounds in the Hunter's Bog, and been duly thrashed therefor by Dr. Adam on the following morning.
When Ralph stood beside her upon the sunny side of the stile he instinctively resumed Winsome's hand. For this he had no reason, certainly no excuse. Still, it may be urged in excuse that it was as much as an hour or an hour and a half before Winsome remembered that he needed any. Our most correct and ordered thoughts have a way of coming to us belated, as the passenger who strolls in confidently ten minutes after the platform is clear. But, like him, they are at least ready for the next train.
As Winsome and Ralph turned towards the east, the sun set his face over the great Scotch firs on the ridge, whose tops stood out like poised irregular blots on the fire centred ocean of light.
It was the new day, and if the new world had not come with it, of a surety it was well on the way.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.