Now Meg Kissock could stand a great deal, and she would put up with a great deal to pleasure her mistress; but half an hour of loneliness down by the washing was overly much for her, and the struggle between loyalty and curiosity ended, after the manner of her sex, in the victory of the latter.
As Ralph and Winsome continued to seek, they came time and again close together and the propinquity of flushed cheek and mazy ringlet stirred something in the lad's heart which had never been touched by the Mistresses Thriepneuk, who lived where the new houses of the Plainstones look over the level meadows of the Borough Muir. His father had often said within himself, as he walked the Edinburgh streets to visit some sick kirk member, as he had written to his friend Adam Welsh, ‘Has the lad a heart?’ Had he seen him on that broomy knowe over the Grannoch water, he had not doubted, though he might well have been fearful enough of that heart's too sudden awakening.
Never before had the youth come within that delicate aura of charm which radiates from the bursting bud of the finest womanhood. Ralph Peden had kept his affections ascetically virgin. His nature's finest juices had gone to feed the brain, yet all the time his heart had waited expectant of the revealing of a mystery. Winsome Charteris had come so suddenly into his life that the universe seemed newborn in a day. He sprang at once from the thought of woman as only an unexplained part of the creation, to the conception of her (meaning thereby Winsome Charteris) as an angel who had not lost her first estate.
It was a strange thing for Ralph Peden, as indeed it is to every true man, to come for the first time within the scope of the unconscious charms of a good girl. There is, indeed, no better solvent of a cold nature, no better antidote to a narrow education, no better bulwark of defence against frittering away the strength and solemnity of first love, than a sudden, strong plunge into its deep waters.
Like timid bathers, who run a little way into the tide and then run out again with ankles wet, fearful of the first chill, many men accustom themselves to love by degrees. So they never taste the sweetness and strength of it as did Ralph Peden in these days, when, never having looked upon a maid with the level summer lightning of mutual interest flashing in his eyes, he plunged into love's fathomless mysteries as one may dive upon a still day from some craggy platform among the westernmost isles into Atlantic depths.
Winsome's light summer dress touched his hand and thrilled the lad to his remotest nerve centres. He stood light-headed, taking in as only they twain looked over the loch with far-away eyes, that subtle fragrance, delicate and free, which like a garment clothed the maid of the Grannoch lochside.
‘The water's on the boil,’ cried Meg Kissock, setting her ruddy shock of hair and blooming, amplified, buxom form above the knoll, wringing at the same time the suds from her hands, ‘an' I canna lift it aff mysel'.’
Her mistress looked at her with a sudden suspicion. Since when had Meg grown so feeble?
‘We had better go down,’ she said simply, turning to Ralph, who would have cheerfully assented had she suggested that they should together walk into the loch among the lily beds. It was the ‘we’ that overcame him. His father had used the pronoun in quite a different sense. ‘We will take the twenty-ninth chapter of second Chronicles this morning, Ralph—what do we understand by this peculiar use of vav conversive?’
But it was quite another thing when Winsome Charteris said simply, as though he had been her brother:
‘We had better go down!’
So they went down, taking the little stile at which Winsome had meditated over the remarks of Ralph Peden concerning the creation of Eve upon their way. Meg Kissock led the van, and took the dyke vigorously without troubling the steps, her kirtle fitting her for such exercises. Winsome came next, and Ralph stood aside to let her pass. She sprang up the low steps light as a feather, rested her fingertips for an appreciable fraction of a second on the hand which he instinctively held out, and was over before he realized that anything had happened. Yet it seemed that in that contact, light as a rose-leaf blown by the winds of late July against his cheek, his past life had been shorn clean away from all the future as with a sharp sword.
Ralph Peden had dutifully kissed his cousins Jemima, Kezia, and Kerenhappuch; but, on the whole, he had felt more pleasure when he had partaken of the excellent bannocks prepared for him by the fair hands of Kerenhappuch herself. But this was wholly a new thing. His breath came suddenly short. He breathed rapidly as though to give his lungs more air. The atmosphere seemed to have grown rarer and colder. Indeed, it was a different world, and the blanket-washing itself was transferred to some deliciously homely outlying annex of paradise.
Yet it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should be helping this girl, and he went forward with the greatest assurance to lift the black pot off the fire for her. The keen, acrid swirls of wood-smoke blew into his eyes, and the rank steam of yellow home-made soap, manufactured with bracken ash for lye, rose to his nostrils. Now, Ralph Peden was well made and strong. Spare in body but accurately compacted, if he had ever struggled with anything more formidable than the folio hide-hound Calvins and Turretins on his father's lower shelf in James's Court, he had been no mean antagonist.
But, though he managed with a great effort to lift the black pot off its gypsy tripod, he would have let the boiling contents swing dangerously against his legs had not Winsome caught sharply at his other hand and leaned over, so balancing the weight of the boiling water. So they walked down the path to where the tubs stood under the shade of the great ash-trees, with their sky-tossing, dry- rustling leaves. There Ralph set his burden down. Meg Kissock had been watching him keenly. She saw that he had severely burned his hand, and also that he said nothing whatever about it. He was a man. This gained for the young man Meg's hearty approval almost as much as his bashfulness and native good looks. What Meg Kissock did not know was that Ralph was altogether unconscious of the wound in his hand. It was a deeper wound which was at that time monopolising his thoughts. But this little incident was more than a thousand certificates in the eyes of Meg Kissock, and Meg's friendship was decidedly worth cultivating. Even for its own sake she did not give it lightly.
Before Winsome Charteris could release her hand, Ralph turned and said:
‘Do you know you have not yet told me your name?’
Winsome did know it very well, but she only said, ‘My name is Winsome Charteris, and this is Meg Kissock.’
‘Winsome Charteris, Winsome Charteris,’ said Ralph's heart over and over again, and he had not even the grace to say ‘Thank you’; but Meg stepped up to shake him by the hand.
‘I'm braw an' prood to ken ye, sir,’ said Meg. ‘That muckle sumph, Saunders Mowdiewort, telled me a' aboot ye comin' an' the terrible store o' lear ye hae. He's the minister's man, ye ken, an' howks the graves ower by at the parish kirk-yard, for the auld betheral there winna gang ablow three fit deep, and them that haes ill-tongued wives to haud doon disna want ony mistake—’
‘Meg,’ said her mistress, ‘do not forget yourself.’
‘Deil a fear,’ said Meg; ‘it was auld Sim o' Glower-ower-'em, the wizened auld hurcheon [hedgehog], that set a big thruch stane ower his first wife; and when he buried his second in the neist grave, he just turned the broad flat stone. 'Guid be thankit!' he says, 'I had the forethocth to order a stane heavy eneuch to haud them baith doon!'‘
‘Get to the washing, Meg,’ said Winsome.
‘Fegs!’ returned Meg, ‘ye waur in nae great hurry yersel' doon aff the broomy knowe! What's a' the steer sae sudden like?’
Winsome disdained an answer, but stood to her own tub, where some of the lighter articles—pillow-slips, and fair sheets of ‘seventeen-hundred’ linen were waiting her daintier hand.
As Winsome and Meg washed, Ralph Peden carried water, learning the wondrous science of carrying two cans over a wooden hoop; and in the frankest tutelage Winsome put her hand over his to teach him, and the relation of master and pupil asserted its ancient danger.
It had not happened to Winsome Charteris to meet any one to whom she was attracted with such frank liking. She had never known what it was to have a brother, and she thought that this clear-eyed young man might be a brother to her. It is a fallacy common among girls that young men desire them as sisters. Ralph himself was under no such illusion, or at least would not have been, had he had the firmness of mind to sit down half a mile from his emotions and coolly look them over. But in the meanwhile he was only conscious of a great and rising delight in his heart.
As Winsome Charteris bent above the wash-tub he was at liberty to observe how the blood mantled on the clear oval of her cheek. He had time to note—of course entirely as a philosopher—the pale purple shadow under the eyes, over which the dark, curling lashes came down like the fringe of the curtain of night.
‘Why—I wonder why?’ he said, and stopped aghast at his utterance aloud of his inmost thought.
‘What do you wonder?’ said Winsome, glancing up with a frank dewy freshness in her eyes.
‘I wonder why—I wonder that you are able to do all this work,’ he said, with an attempt to turn the corner of his blunder.
Winsome shook her head.
‘Now you are trying to be like other people,’ she said; ‘I do not think you will succeed. That was not what you were going to say. If you are to be my friend, you must speak all the truth to me and speak it always.’
A thing which, indeed, no man does to a woman. And, besides, nobody had spoken of Ralph Peden being a friend to her. The meaning was that their hearts had been talking while their tongues had spoken of other things; and though there was no thought of love in the breast of Winsome Charteris, already in the intercourse of a single morning she had given this young Edinburgh student of divinity a place which no other had ever attained to. Had she had a brother, she thought, what would he not have been to her? She felt specially fitted to have a brother. It did not occur to her to ask whether she would have carried her brother's college note-book, even by accident, where it could be stirred by the beating of her heart.
‘Well,’ Ralph said at last, ‘I will tell you what I was wondering. You have asked me, and you shall know: I only wondered why your eyelashes were so much darker than your hair.’
Winsome Charteris was not in the least disturbed.
‘Ministers should occupy their minds with something else,’ she said, demurely. ‘What would Mr. Welsh say? I am sure he has never troubled his head about such things. It is not fitting,’ Winsome said severely.
‘But I want to know,’ said this persistent young man, wondering at himself.
‘Well,’ said Winsome, glancing up with mischief in her eye, ‘I suppose because I am a very lazy sort of person, and dark window- blinds keep out the light.’
‘But why are they curled up at the end?’ asked unblushingly the author of the remarks upon Eve formerly quoted.
‘It is time that you went up and saw my grandmother!’ said Winsome, with great composure.
‘Juist what I was on the point o' remarkin' mysel'!’ said Meg Kissock.
A LESSON IN BOTANY
No lassie in all the hill country went forth more heart-whole into the June morning than Winsome Charteris. She was not, indeed, wholly a girl of the south uplands. Her grandmother was never done reminding her of her ‘Englishy’ ways, which, according to that authority, she had contracted during those early years she had spent in Cumberland. From thence she had been brought to the farm town of Craig Ronald, soon after the death of her only uncle, Adam Skirving—whose death, coming after the loss of her own mother, had taken such an effect upon her grandfather that for years he had seldom spoken, and now took little interest in the ongoings of the farm.
Walter Skirving was one of a class far commoner in Galloway sixty years ago than now. He was a ‘bonnet laird’ of the best type, and his farm, which included all kinds of soil—arable and pasture, meadow and moor, hill pasture and wood—was of the value of about £300 a year, a sum sufficient in those days to make him a man of substance and consideration in the country.
He had been all his life, except for a single year in his youth when he broke bounds, a Marrow man of the strictest type; and it had been the wonder and puzzle of his life (to others, not to himself) how he came to make up to Ailie Gordon, the daughter of the old moss-trooping Lochenkit Gordons, that had ridden with the laird of Redgauntlet in the killing time, and more recently had been out with Maxwell of Nithsdale, and Gordon of Kenmure, to strike a blow for the ‘King-over-the-Water.’ And to this very day, though touched with a stroke which prevented her from moving far out of her chair, Ailie Skirving showed the good blood and high- hearted lightsomeness that had won the young laird of Craig Ronald upon the Loch Grannoch side nearly fifty years before.
It was far more of a wonder how Ailie Gordon came to take Walter Skirving. It may be that she felt in her heart the accent of a true man in the unbending, nonjuring elder of the Marrow kirk. Two great heart-breaks had crossed their lives: the shadow of the life story of Winsome's mother, that earlier Winsome whose name had not been heard for twenty years in the house of Craig Ronald; and the more recent death of Adam, the strong, silent, chivalrous-natured son who had sixteen years ago been killed, falling from his horse as he rode home alone one winter's night from Dumfries.
It was a natural thing to be in love with Winsome Charteris. It seemed natural to Winsome herself. Ever since she was a little lass running to school in Keswick, with a touse of lint-white locks blowing out in the gusts that came swirling off Skiddaw, Winsome had always been conscious of a train of admirers. The boys liked to carry her books, and were not so ashamed to walk home with her, as even at six years of age young Cumbrians are wont to be in the company of maids. Since she came to Galloway, and opened out with each succeeding year, like the bud of a moss rose growing in a moist place, Winsome had thought no more of masculine admiration than of the dull cattle that ‘goved’ upon her as she picked her deft way among the stalls in the byre. In all Craig Ronald there was nothing between the hill and the best room that did not bear the mark of Winsome's method and administrative capacity. In perfect dependence upon Winsome, her granny had gradually abandoned all the management of the house to her, so that at twenty that young woman was a veritable Napoleon of finance and capacity. Only old Richard Clelland of the Boreland, grave and wise pillar of the kirk by law established, still transacted her market business and banked her siller—being, as he often said, proud to act as ‘doer’ for so fair a principal. So it happened that all the reins of government about this tiny lairdship of one farm were in the strong and capable hands of a girl of twenty.
And Meg Kissock was her true admirer and faithful slave—Winsome's heavy hand, too, upon occasion; for all the men on the farm stood in awe of Meg's prowess, and very especially of Meg's tongue. So also the work fell mostly upon these two, and in less measure upon a sister of Meg's, Jess Kissock, lately returned from England, a young lady whom we have already met.
During the night and morning Winsome had studied with some attention the Hebrew Bible, in which the name Allan Welsh appeared, as well as the Latin Luther Commentary, and the Hebrew Lexicon, on the first page of which the name of Ralph Peden was written in the same neat print hand as in the note-book.
This was the second day of the blanket-washing, and Winsome, having in her mind a presentiment that the proprietor of these learned quartos would appear to claim his own, carried them down to the bridge, where Meg and her sister were already deep in the mysteries of frothing tubs and boiling pots. Winsome from the broomy ridge could hear the shrill ‘giff-gaff’ of their colloquy. She sat down under Ralph's very broom bush, and absently turned over the leaves of the note-book, catching sentences here and there.
‘I wonder how old he is?’ she said, meditatively; ‘his coat-tails looked old, but the legs went too lively for an old man; besides, he likes maids to be dressed in lilac—’ She paused still more thoughtfully. ‘Well, we shall see.’ She bent over and pulled the milky-stalked, white-seeded head of a dandelion. Taking it between the finger and thumb of her left hand she looked critically at it as though it were a glass of wine. ‘He is tall, and he is fair, and his age is—’
Here she pouted her pretty lips and blew.
‘One—ha, ha!—he was an active infant when he ran from the blanket-tramping—two, three, four—’
Some tiny feather-headed spikelets disengaged themselves unwillingly from the round and venerable downpolled dandelion. They floated lazily up between the tassels of the broom upon the light breeze.
‘Five, six, seven, eight—faith, he was a clean-heeled laddie yon. Ye couldna see his legs or coat-tails for stour as he gaed roon' the Far Away Turn.’
Winsome was revelling in her broad Scots. She had learned it from her grandmother.
‘Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—I'll no can set the dogs on him then—sixteen, seventeen, eighteen—dear me, this is becoming interesting.’
The plumules were blowing off freely now, like snow from the eaves on a windy day in winter.
‘Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one—I must reverence my elders. If I don't blow stronger he'll turn out to be fifty—twenty-three, twenty-f—’
A shadow fell across the daintily-held dandelion and lay a blue patch on the grass. Only one pale grey star stood erect on the stem, the vacant green sheathing of the calyx turning suddenly down.
‘Twenty four!—’ said Ralph Peden quietly, standing with his hat in his hand and an eager flush on his cheek. The last plumule floated away.
Winsome Charteris had risen instinctively, and stood looking with crimson cheeks and quicker-coming breath at this young man who came upon her in the nick of time.
He was startled and a little indignant. So they stood facing one another while one might count a score—silent and drinking each the other in, with that flashing transference of electric sympathy possible only to the young and the innocent.
It was the young man who spoke first. Winsome was a little indignant that he should dare to come upon her while so engaged. Not, of course, that she cared for a moment what he thought of her, but he ought to have known better than to have stolen upon her while she was behaving in such a ridiculous, childish way. It showed what he was capable of.
‘My name is Ralph Peden,’ he said humbly. ‘I came from Edinburgh the day before yesterday. I am staying with Mr. Welsh at the manse.’
Winsome Charteris glanced down at the books and blushed still more deeply. The Hebrew Bible and Lexicon lay harmlessly enough on the grass, and the Luther was swinging in a frivolous and untheological way on the strong, bent twigs of broom. But where was the note-book? Like a surge of Solway tide the remembrance came over her that, when she had plucked the dandelion for her soothsaying, she had thrust it carelessly into the bosom of her lilac-sprigged gown. Indeed, a corner of it peeped out at this moment. Had he seen it?—monstrous thought! She knew young men and the interpretations that they put upon nothings! This, in spite of his solemn looks and mantling bashfulness, was a young man.
‘Then I suppose these are yours,’ said Winsome, turning sideways towards the indicated articles so as to conceal the note-book. The young man removed his eyes momentarily from her face and looked in the direction of the books. He seemed to have entirely forgotten what it was that had brought him to Loch Grannoch bridge so early this June morning. Winsome took advantage of his glance to feel that her sunbonnet sat straight, and as her hand was on its way to her clustering curls she took this opportunity of thrusting Ralph's note-book into more complete concealment. Then her hands went up to her head only to discover that her sunbonnet had slipped backward, and was now hanging down her back by the strings.
Ralph Peden looked up at her, apparently entirely satisfied. What was a note-book to him now? He saw the sunbonnet resting upon the wavy distraction of the pale gold hair. He had a luxurious eye for colour. That lilac and gold went well together, was his thought.
Trammelled by the fallen head-gear, Winsome threw her head back, shaking out her tresses in a way that Ralph Peden never forgot. Then she caught at the strings of the errant bonnet.
‘Oh, let it alone!’ he suddenly exclaimed.
‘Sir?’ said Winsome Charteris—interrogatively, not imperatively. Ralph Peden, who had taken a step forward in the instancy of his appeal, came to himself again in a moment.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said very humbly, ‘I had no right—’
He paused, uncertain what to say.
Winsome Charteris looked up quickly, saw the simplicity of the young man, in one full eye-blink read his heart, then dropped her eyes again and said:
‘But I thought you liked lilac sunbonnets!’
Ralph Peden had now his turn to blush. Hardly in the secret of his own heart had he said this thing. Only to Mr. Welsh had his forgetful tongue uttered the word that was in his mind, and which had covered since yesterday morn all the precepts of that most superfluous wise woman, the mother of King Lemuel.
‘Are you a witch?’ asked Ralph, blundering as an honest and bashful man may in times of distress into the boldest speech.
‘You want to go up and see my grandmother, do you not?’ said Winsome, gravely, for such conversation was not to be continued on any conditions.
‘Yes,’ said the young man, perjuring himself with a readiness and facility most unbecoming in a student desiring letters of probation from the Protesting and Covenant-keeping Kirk of the Marrow.
Ralph Peden lightly picked up the books, which, as Winsome knew, were some considerable weight to carry.
‘Do you find them quite safe?’ she asked.
‘There was a heavy dew last night,’ he answered, ‘but in spite of it they seem quite dry.
‘We often notice the same thing on Loch Grannoch side,’ said Winsome.
‘I thought—that is, I was under the impression—that I had left a small book with some manuscript notes!’ said the young man, tentatively.
‘It may have dropped among the broom,’ replied the simple maid.
Whereupon the two set to seeking, both bareheaded, brown cropped head and golden wilderness of tresses not far from one another, while the ‘book of manuscript notes’ rose and fell to the quickened heart-beating of that wicked and deceitful girl, Winsome Charteris.
A CAVALIER PURITAN
The farm town of Craig Ronald drowsed in the quiet of noon. In the open court the sunshine triumphed, and only the purple-grey marsh mallows along the side of the house under the windows gave any sign of life. In them the bees had begun to hum at earliest dawn, an hour and a half before the sun looked over the crest of Ben Gairn. They were humming busily still. In all the chambers of the house there was the same reposeful stillness. Through them Winsome Charteris moved with free, light step. She glanced in to see that her grandfather and grandmother were wanting for nothing in their cool and wide sitting-room, where the brown mahogany-cased eight- day clock kept up an unequal ticking, like a man walking upon two wooden legs of which one is shorter than the other.
It said something for Winsome Charteris and her high-hearted courage, that what she was accustomed to see in that sitting-room had no effect upon her spirits. It was a pleasant room enough, with two windows looking to the south—little round-budded, pale-petalled monthly roses nodding and peeping within the opened window-frames. Sweet it was with a great peace, every chair covered with old sprigged chintz, flowers of the wood and heather from the hill set in china vases about it. The room where the old folk dwelt at Craig Ronald was fresh within as is the dew on sweetbrier. Fresh, too, was the apparel of her grandmother, the flush of youth yet on her delicate cheek, though the Psalmist's limit had long been passed for her.
As Winsome looked within,
‘Are ye not sleeping, grandmother?’ she said.
The old lady looked up with a resentful air.
‘Sleepin'! The lassie's gane gyte! [out of her senses]. What for wad I be sleepin' in the afternune? An' me wi' the care o' yer gran'faither—sic a handling, him nae better nor a bairn, an' you a bit feckless hempie wi' yer hair fleeing like the tail o' a twa- year-auld cowt! [colt]. Sleepin' indeed! Na, sleepin's nane for me!’
The young girl came up and put her arms about her grandmother.
‘That's rale unceevil o' ye, noo, Granny Whitemutch!’ she said, speaking in the coaxing tones to which the Scots' language lends itself so easily, ‘an' it's just because I hae been sae lang at the blanket-washin', seein' till that hizzy Meg. An' ken ye what I saw!-ane o' the black dragoons in full retreat, grannie; but he left his camp equipage ahint him, as the sergeant said when—Ye ken the story, grannie. Ye maun hae been terrible bonny in thae days!’
‘'Deed I'm nane sae unbonny yet, for a' yer helicat flichtmafleathers, sprigget goons, an' laylac bonnets,’ said the old lady, shaking her head till the white silk top-knots trembled. ‘No, nor I'm nane sae auld nayther. The gudeman in the corner there, he's auld and dune gin'ye like, but no me—no me! Gin he warna spared to me, I could even get a man yet,’ continued the lively old lady, ‘an' whaur wad ye be then, my lass, I wad like to ken?’
‘Perhaps I could get one too, grannie,’ she said. And she shook her head with an air of triumph. Winsome kissed her grandmother gently on the brow.
‘Nane o' yer Englishy tricks an' trokin's,’ said she, settling the white muslin band which she wore across her brow wrinkleless and straight, where it had been disarrayed by the onslaught of her impulsive granddaughter.
‘Aye,’ she went on, stretching out a hand which would have done credit to a great dame, so white and slender was it in spite of the hollows which ran into a triangle at the wrist, and the pale- blue veins which the slight wrinkles have thrown into relief.
‘An' I mind the time when three o' his Majesty's officers—nane o' yer militia wi' horses that rin awa' wi' them ilka time they gang oot till exerceese, but rale sodgers wi' sabre-tashies to their heels and spurs like pitawtie dreels. Aye, sirs, but that was before I married an elder in the Kirk o' the Marrow. I wasna twenty-three when I had dune wi' the gawds an' vanities o' this wicked world.’
‘I saw a minister lad the day—a stranger,’ said Winsome, very quietly.
‘Sirce me,’ returned her grandmother briskly; ‘kenned I e'er the like o' ye, Winifred Chayrteris, for licht-heedit-ness an' lack o' a' common sense! Saw a minister an' ne'er thocht, belike, o' sayin' cheep ony mair nor if he had been a wutterick [weasel]. An' what like was he, na? Was he young, or auld—or no sae verra auld, like mysel'? Did he look like an Establisher by the consequence o' the body, or—’
‘But, grannie dear, how is it possible that I should ken, when all that I saw of him was but his coat-tails? It was him that was running away.’
‘My certes,’ said grannie, ‘but the times are changed since my day! When I was as young as ye are the day it wasna sodger or minister ayther that wad hae run frae the sicht o' me. But a minister, and a fine, young-looking man, I think ye said,’ continued Mistress Walter Skirving anxiously.
‘Indeed, grandmother, I said nothing—’ began Winsome.
‘Haud yer tongue, Deil's i' the lassie, he'll be comin' here. Maybes he's comin' up the loan this verra meenit. Get me my best kep [cap], the French yin o' Flanders lawn trimmed wi' Valenceenes lace that Captain Wildfeather, of his Majesty's—But na, I'll no think o' thae times, I canna bear to think o' them wi' ony complaisance ava. But bring me my kep—haste ye fast, lassie!’
Obediently Winsome went to her grandmother's bedroom and drew from under the bed the ‘mutch’ box lined with pale green paper, patterned with faded pink roses. She did not smile when she drew it out. She was accustomed to her grandmother's ways. She too often felt the cavalier looking out from under her Puritan teaching; for the wild strain of the Gordon blood held true to its kind, and Winsome's grandmother had been a Gordon at Lochenkit, whose father had ridden with Kenmure in the great rebellion.
When she brought the white goffered mutch with its plaits and puckers, granny tried it on in various ways, Winsome meanwhile holding a small mirror before her.
‘As I was sayin', I renounced thinkin' aboot the vanities o' youth langsyne. Aye, it'll be forty years sin'—for ye maun mind that I was marriet whan but a lassie. Aye me, it's forty-five years since Ailie Gordon, as I was then, wed wi' Walter Skirving o' Craig Ronald (noo o' his ain chammer neuk, puir man, for he'll never leave it mair),’ added she with a brisk kind of acknowledgment towards the chair of the semi-paralytic in the corner.
There silent and unregarding Walter Skirving sat—a man still splendid in frame and build, erect in his chair, a shawl over his knees even in this day of fervent heat, looking out dumbly on the drowsing, humming world of broad, shadowless noonshine, and often also on the equable silences of the night.
‘No that I regret it the day, when he is but the name o' the man he yince was. For fifty years since there was nae lad like Walter Skirving cam into Dumfries High Street frae Stewartry or frae Shire. No a fit in buckled shune sae licht as his, his weel-shapit leg covered wi' the bonny 'rig-an'-fur' stockin' that I knitted mysel' frae the cast on o' the ower-fauld to the bonny white forefit that sets aff the blue sae weel. Walter Skirving could button his knee-breeks withoot bendin' his back—that nane could do but the king's son himsel'; an' sic a dancer as he was afore guid an' godly Maister Cauldsowans took hand o' him at the tent, wi' preachin' a sermon on booin' the knee to Baal. Aye, aye, its a' awa'—an' its mony the year I thocht on it, let alane thocht on wantin' back thae days o' vanity an' the pride o' sinfu' youth!’
‘Tell me about the officer men, granny,’ said Winsome.
‘'Deed wull I no. It wad be mair tellin' ye gin ye were learnin' yer Caritches’ [Westminster Catechism].
‘But, grandmammy dear, I thought that you said that the officer men ran away from you—’
‘Hear till her! Rin frae me? Certes, ye're no blate. They cam' frae far an' near to get a word wi' me. Na, there was nae rinnin' frae a bonny lass in thae days. Weel, there was three o' them; an' they cam' ower the hill to see the lasses, graund in their reed breeks slashed wi' yellow. An' what for no, they war his Majesty's troopers; an' though nae doot they had been on the wrang side o' the dyke, they were braw chiels for a' that!’
‘An' they cam' to see you, granny?’ asked Winsome, who approved of the subject.
‘What else—but they got an unco begunk. Ye see, my faither had bocht an awfu' thrawn young bull at the Dumfries fair, an' he had been gaun gilravagin' aboot; an' whaur should the contrary beast betak' himsel' to but into the Roman camp on Craig Ronald bank, where the big ditch used to be? There we heard him routin' for three days till the cotmen fand him i' the hinderend, an' poo'ed him oot wi' cart-rapes. But when he got oot—certes, but he was a wild beast! He got at Jock Hinderlands afore he could climb up a tree; an', fegs, he gaed up a tree withoot clim'in', I'se warrant, an' there he hung, hanket by the waistband o' his breeks, baa-haain' for his minnie to come and lift him doon, an' him as muckle a clampersome hobbledehoy as ever ye saw!
‘Then what did Carlaverock Jock do but set his heid to a yett and ding it in flinders; fair fire-wood he made o't; an' sae, rampagin' into the meadow across whilk,’ continued the old lady, with a rising delight in her eye, ‘the three cavalry men were comin' to see me, wi' the spurs on them jangling clear. Reed breeks did na suit Jock's taste at the best o' times, and he had no been brocht up to countenance yellow facin's. So the three braw King George's sodgers that had dune sic graund things at Waterloo took the quickest road through the meadow. Captain St. Clair, he trippit on his sword, an' was understood to cry oot that he had never eaten beef in his life. Ensign Withershins threw his shako ower his shoother and jumpit intil the water, whaur he expressed his opinion o' Carlaverock Jock stan'in' up to his neck in Luckie Mowatt's pool—the words I dinna juist call to mind at this present time, which, indeed, is maybe as weel; but it was Lieutenant Lichtbody, o' his Majesty's Heavy Dragoons, that cam' aff at the waurst. He made for the stane dyke, the sven-fite march dyke that rins up the hill, ye ken. Weel, he made as if he wad mak' ower it, but Boreland'a big Heelant bull had heard the routin' o' his friend Carlaverock Jock, an' was there wi' his horns spread like a man keppin' yowes]. Aye, my certes!’ here the old lady paused, overcome by the humour of her recollections, laughing in her glee a delightfully catching and mellow laugh, in which Winsome joined.
‘Sae there was my braw beau, Lieutenant Lichtbody, sittin' on his hunkers on the dyke tap girnin' at Carlaverock Jock an' the Boreland Hielantman on baith sides o' him, an' tryin' tae hit them ower the nose wi' the scabbard o' his sword, for the whinger itsel' had drappit oot in what ye micht ca' the forced retreat. It was bonny, bonny to see; an' whan the three cam' up the loanin' the neist day, 'Sirs,' I said, 'I'm thinkin' ye had better be gaun. I saw Carlaverock Jock the noo, fair tearin' up the greensward. It wudna be bonny gin his Majesty's officers had twice to mak' sae rapid a march to the rear—an' you, Lieutenant Lichtbody, canna hae a'thegither gotten the better o' yer lang sederunt on the tap o' the hill dyke. It's a bonny view that ye had. It was a peety that ye had forgotten yer perspective glasses.'
‘And wad ye believe it, lassie, the threesome turned on the braid o'their fit an' marched doon the road withoot as muckle as Fair- guid-e'en or Fair-guid-day!’
‘And what said ye, grannie dear?’ said Winsome, who sat on a low seat looking up at her granny.
‘O lassie, I juist set my braid hat ower my lug wi' the bonny white cockade intil't an' gied them 'The Wee, Wee German Lairdie' as they gaed doon the road, an' syne on the back o't:
‘'Awa,Whigs,awa'! Ye're but a pack——'’
But the great plaid-swathed figure of Winsome's grandfather turned at the words of the long-forgotten song as though waking from a deep sleep. A slumberous fire gleamed momentarily in his eye.
‘Woman,’ he said, ‘hold your peace; let not these words be heard in the house of Walter Skirving!’
Having thus delivered himself, the fire faded out of his eyes dead as black ashes; he turned to the window, and lost himself again in meditation, looking with steady eyes across the ocean of sunshine which flooded the valley beneath.
His wife gave him no answer. She seemed scarce to have heard the interruption. But Winsome went across and pulled the heavy plaid gently off her grandfather's shoulder. Then she stood quietly by him with one hand upon his head and with the other she gently stroked his brow. A milder light grew in his dull eye, and he put up his hand uncertainly as if to take hers.
‘But what for should I be takin' delicht in speakin' o' thae auld unsanctified regardless days,’ said her grandmother, ‘that 'tis mony a year since I hae ta'en ony pleesure in thinkin' on? Gae wa', ye hempie that ye are!’ she cried, turning with a sudden and uncalled-for sparkle of temper on her granddaughter; ‘There's nae time an' little inclination in this hoose for yer flichty conversation. I wonder muckle that yer thouchts are sae set on the vanities o' young men. And such are all that delight in them.’ She went on somewhat irrelevantly, ‘Did not godly Maister Cauldsowans redd up the doom o' such—'all desirable young men riding upon horses—'
‘An' I'll gae redd up the dairy, an' kirn the butter, grannie!’ said Winsome Charteris, breaking in on the flow of her grandmother's reproaches.
Winsome Charteris was a self-possessed maid, but undeniably her heart beat faster when she found on the brae face, beneath the bush of broom, two books the like of which she had never seen before, as well as an open notebook with writing upon it in the neatest and delicatest of hands. First, as became a prudent woman of experience, she went up to the top of the hill to assure herself that the owner of this strange treasure was not about to return. Then she carefully let down her high-kilted print dress till only her white feet ‘like little mice’ stole in and out. It did not strike her that this sacrifice to the conventions was just a trifle belated.
As she returned she said ‘Shoo!’ at every tangled bush, and flapped her apron as if to scare whatever curious wild fowl might have left behind it in its nest under the broom such curious nest- eggs as two great books full of strange, bewitched-looking printing, and a note-book of curious and interesting writings. Then, with a half sigh of disappointment, Winsome Charteris sat herself down to look into this matter. Meg Kissock from the bridge end showed signs of coming up to see what she was about; but Winsome imperiously checked the movement.
‘Bide where you are, Meg; I'll be down with you presently.’
She turned over the great Hebrew Bible reverently. ‘A. Welsh’ was written on the fly-leaf. She had a strange idea that she had seen it before. It seemed somehow thrillingly familiar.
‘That's the minister's Hebrew Bible book, no doubt,’ she said. ‘For that's the same kind of printing as between the double verses of the hundred-and-nineteenth Psalm in my grandfather's big Bible,’ she continued, sapiently shaking her head till the crispy ringlets tumbled about her eyes, and she had impatiently to toss them aside.
She laid the Bible down and peeped into the other strange-looking book. There were single words here of the same kind as in the other, but the most part was in ordinary type, though in a language of which she could make nothing. The note-book was a resource. It was at least readable, and Winsome Charteris began expectantly to turn it over. But something stirred reprovingly in her heart. It seemed as if she were listening to a conversation not meant for her. So she kept her finger on the leaf, but did not turn it.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I will not read it. It is not meant for me.’ Then, after a pause, ‘At least I will only read this page which is open, and then look at the beginning to see whose it is; for, you know, I may need to send it back to him.’ The back she had seen vanish round the Far Away Turn demanded the masculine pronoun.
She lifted the book and read:
‘Alas!’ (so ran the writing, fluent and clear, small as printer's type, Ralph Peden's beautiful Hellenic script), ‘alas, that the good qualities of the housewives of Solomon's days are out of date and forgotten in these degenerate times! Women, especially the younger of them, are become gadabouts, chatterers in the public ways, idle, adorners of their vain selves, pamperers of their frail tabernacles—’
Winsome threw down the book and almost trod upon it as upon a snake.
‘'Tis some city fop,’ she said, stamping her foot, ‘who is tired of the idle town dames. I wonder if he has ever seen the sun rise or done a day's work in his life? If only I had the wretch! But I will read no more!’
In token of the sincerity of the last assertion, she picked up the note-book again. There was little more to read. It was at this point that the humble-bee had startled the writer.
But underneath there were words faintly scrawled in pencil: ‘Must concentrate attention’—‘The proper study of mankind is’—this last written twice, as if the writer were practising copy-lines absently. Then at the very bottom was written, so faintly that hardly any eyes but Winsome's could have read the words:
‘Of all colours I do love the lilac. I wonder all maids do not wear gear of that hue!’
‘Oh!’ said Winsome Charteris quickly.
Then she gathered up the books very gently, and taking a kerchief from her neck, she folded the two great books within it, fastening them with a cunning knot. She was carrying them slowly up towards the farm town of Craig Ronald in her bare arms when Ralph Peden sat answering his catechism in the study at the manse. She entered the dreaming courtyard, and walked sedately across its silent sun- flooded spaces without a sound. She passed the door of the cool parlour where her grandfather and grandmother sat, the latter with her hands folded and her great tortoiseshell spectacles on her nose, taking her afternoon nap. A volume of Waverley lay beside her. Into her own white little room Winsome went, and laid the bundle of books in the bottom of the wall-press, which was lined with sheets of the Cairn Edward Miscellany. She looked at it some time before she shut the door.
‘His name is Ralph,’ she said. ‘I wonder how old he is—I shall know tomorrow, because he will come back; but—I would like to know tonight.’
She sighed a little—so light a breath that it was only the dream of a sigh. Then she looked at the lilac sunbonnet, as if it ought to have known.
‘At any rate he has very good taste,’ she said.
But the lilac sunbonnet said never a word.
THE MOTHER OF KING LEMUEL
It was not till Ralph Peden had returned to the study of the manse of the Marrow kirk of Dullarg, and the colour induced by exercise had had time to die out of his naturally pale cheeks, that he remembered that he had left his Hebrew Bible and Lexicon, as well as a half-written exegesis on an important subject, underneath the fatal whin bush above the bridge over the Grannoch water. He would have been glad to rise and seek it immediately—a task which, indeed, no longer presented itself in such terrible colours to him. He found himself even anxious to go. It would be a serious thing were he to lose his father's Lexicon and Mr. Welsh's Hebrew Bible. Moreover, he could not bear the thought of leaving the sheets of his exposition of the last chapter of Proverbs to be the sport of the gamesome Galloway winds—or, worse thought, the laughing-stock of gamesome young women who whistled with two fingers in their mouths.
Yet the picture of the maid of the loch which rose before him struck him as no unpleasant one. He remembered for one thing how the sun shone through the tangle of her hair. But he had quite forgotten, on the other hand, at what part of his exegesis he had left off. It was, however, a manifest impossibility for him to slip out again. Besides, he was in mortal terror lest Mr. Welsh should ask for his Hebrew Bible, or offer to revise his chapter of the day with him. All the afternoon he was uneasy, finding no excuse to take himself away to the loch-side in order to find his Bible and Lexicon.
‘I understand you have been studying, with a view to license, the last chapter of the Proverbs of Solomon?’ said Gilbert Welsh, interrogatively, bending his shaggy brows and pouting his underlip at the student.
The Marrow minister was a small man, with a body so dried and twisted (‘shauchelt’ was the local word) that all the nerve stuff of a strong nature had run up to his brain, so that when he walked he seemed always on the point of falling forward, overbalanced by the weight of his cliff-like brow.
‘Ralph, will you ground the argument of the mother of King Lemuel in this chapter? But perhaps you would like to refer to the original Hebrew?’ said the minister.
‘Oh, no,’ interrupted Ralph, aghast at the latter suggestion, ‘I do not need the text—thank you, sir.’
But, in spite of his disclaimer, he devoutly desired to be where the original text and his written comment upon it were at that moment—which, indeed, was a consummation even more devoutly to be wished than he had any suspicion of. The Marrow minister leaned his head on his hand and looked waitingly at the young man.
Ralph recalled himself with an effort. He had to repeat to himself that he was in the manse study, and almost to pinch his knee to convince himself of the reality of his experiences. But this was not necessary a second time, for, as he sat hastily down on one of Allen Welsh's hard-wood chairs, a prickle from the gorse bush which he had brought back with him from Loch Grannoch side was argument sharp enough to convince Bishop Berkeley.
‘Compose yourself to answer my question,’ said the minister, with some slight severity. Ralph wondered silently if even a minister of the Marrow kirk in good standing, could compose himself on one whin prickle for certain, and the probability of several others developing themselves at various angles hereafter.
Ralph ‘grounded’ himself as best as he could, explaining the views of the mother of King Lemuel as to the woman of virtue and faithfulness. He seemed to himself to have a fluency and a fervour in exposition to which he had been a stranger. He began to have new views about the necessity for the creation of Eve. Woman might possibly, after all, be less purely gratuitous than he had supposed.
‘The woman who is above rubies,’ said he, ‘is one who rises early to care for the house, who oversees the handmaids as they cleanse the household stuffs—in a’ (he just saved himself from saying ‘in a black pot’)— ‘in a fitting vessel by the rivers of water.’
‘Well put and correctly mandated,’ said Mr. Welsh, very much pleased. There was unction about this young man. Though a bachelor by profession, he loved to hear the praises of good women; for he had once known one.
‘She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and—’
Here Ralph paused, biting his tongue to keep from describing the picture which rose before him.
‘And what,’ said the minister, tentatively, leaning forward to look into the open face of the young man, ‘what is the distinction or badge of true beauty and favour of countenance, as so well expressed by the mother of King Lemuel?’
‘A LILAC SUNBONNET!’ said Ralph Peden, student in divinity.
THE LILAC SUNBONNET
ALONG THE WAYSIDE
As Ralph Peden came along the dusty Cairn Edward road from the coach which had set him down there on its way to the Ferry town, he paused to rest in the evening light at the head of the Long Wood of Larbrax. Here, under boughs that arched the way, he took from his shoulders his knapsack, filled with Hebrew and Greek books, and rested his head on the larger bag of roughly tanned Westland leather, in which were all his other belongings. They were not numerous. He might, indeed, have left both his bags for the Dullarg carrier on Saturday, but to lack his beloved books for four days was not to be thought of for a moment by Ralph Peden. He would rather have carried them up the eight long miles to the manse of the Dullarg one by one.
As he sat by the tipsy milestone, which had swayed sidelong and lay half buried amid the grass and dock leaves, a tall, dark girl came by—half turning to look at the young man as he rested. It was Jess Kissock, from the Herd's House at Craig Ronald, on her way home from buying trimmings for a new hat. This happened just twice a year, and was a solemn occasion.
‘Is this the way to the manse of Dullarg?’ asked the young man, standing up with his hat in his hand, the brim just beneath his chin. He was a handsome young man when he stood up straight.
Jess looked at him attentively. They did not speak in that way in her country, nor did they take their hats in their hands when they had occasion to speak to young women.
‘I am myself going past the Dullarg,’ she said, and paused with a hiatus like an invitation.
Ralph Peden was a simple young man, but he rose and shouldered his knapsack without a word. The slim, dark-haired girl with the bright, quick eyes like a bird, put out her hand to take a share of the burden of Ralph's bag.
‘Thank you, but I am quite able to manage it myself,’ he said, ‘I could not think of letting you put your hand to it.’
‘I am not a fine lady,’ said the girl, with a little impatient movement of her brows, as if she had stamped her foot. ‘I am nothing but a cottar's lassie.’
‘But then, how comes it that you speak as you do?’ asked Ralph.
‘I have been long in England—as a lady's maid,’ she answered with a strange, disquieting look at him. She had taken one side of the bag of books in spite of his protest, and now walked by Ralph's side through the evening coolness.
‘This is the first time you have been hereaway?’ his companion asked.
Ralph nodded a quick affirmative and smiled.
‘Then,’ said Jess Kissock, the rich blood mantling her dark cheeks, ‘I am the first from the Dullarg you have spoken to!’
‘The very first!’ said Ralph.
‘Then I am glad,’ said Jess Kissock. But in the young man's heart there was no answering gladness, though in very sooth she was an exceeding handsome maid.
Ralph Peden lay well content under a thorn bush above the Grannoch water. It was the second day of his sojourning in Galloway—the first of his breathing the heather scent on which the bees grew tipsy, and of listening to the grasshoppers chirring in the long bent by the loch side. Yesterday his father's friend, Allan Welsh, minister of the Marrow kirk in the parish of Dullarg, had held high discourse with him as to his soul's health, and made many inquiries as to how it sped in the great city with the precarious handful of pious folk, who gathered to listen to the precious and savoury truths of the pure Marrow teaching. Ralph Peden was charged with many messages from his father, the metropolitan Marrow minister, to Allan Welsh—dear to his soul as the only minister who had upheld the essentials on that great day, when among the assembled Presbyters so many had gone backward and walked no more with him.
‘Be faithful with the young man, my son,’ Allan Welsh read in the quaintly sealed and delicately written letter which his brother minister in Edinburgh had sent to him, and which Ralph had duly delivered in the square, grim manse of Dullarg, with a sedate and old-fashioned reverence which sat strangely on one of his years. ‘Be faithful with the young man,’ continued the letter; ‘he is well grounded on the fundamentals; his head is filled with godly lear, and he has sound views on the Headship; but he has always been a little cold and distant even to me, his father according to the flesh. With his companions he is apt to be distant and reserved. I am to blame for the solitude of our life here in James's Court, but to you I do not need to tell the reason of that. The Lord give you his guidance in leading the young man in the right way.’
So far Gilbert Peden's letter had run staidly and in character like the spoken words of the writer. But here it broke off. The writing, hitherto fine as a hair, thickened; and from this point became crowded and difficult, as though the floods of feeling had broken some dam. ‘O man Allan, for my sake, if at all you have loved me, or owe me anything, dig deep and see if the lad has a heart. He shews it not to me.’
So that is why Ralph Peden lies couched in the sparce bells of the ling, just where the dry, twisted timothy grasses are beginning to overcrown the purple bells of the heather. Tall and clean-limbed, with a student's pallor of clear-cut face, a slightly ascetic stoop, dark brown curls clustering over a white forehead, and eyes which looked steadfast and true, the young man was sufficient of a hero. He wore a broad straw hat, which he had a pleasant habit of pushing back, so that his clustering locks fell over his brow after a fashion which all women thought becoming. But Ralph Peden heeded not what women thought, said, or did, for he was trysted to the kirk of the Marrow, the sole repertory of orthodox truth in Scotland, which is as good as saying in the wide world—perhaps even in the universe.
Ralph Peden had dwelt all his life with his father in an old house in James's Court, Edinburgh, overlooking the great bounding circle of the northern horizon and the eastern sea. He had been trained by his father to think more of a professor's opinion on his Hebrew exercise than of a woman's opinion on any subject whatever. He had been told that women were an indispensable part of the economy of creation; but, though he accepted word by word the Westminster Confession, and as an inexorable addition the confessions and protests of the remnant of the true kirk in Scotland (known as the Marrow kirk), he could not but consider woman a poor makeshift, even as providing for the continuity of the race. Surely she had not been created when God looked upon all that he had made and found it very good. The thought preserved Ralph's orthodoxy.
Ralph Peden had come out into the morning air, with his note-book and a volume which he had been studying all the way from Edinburgh. As he lay at length among the grass he conned it over and over. He referred to passages here and there. He set out very calmly with that kind of determination with which a day's work in the open air with a book is often begun. Not for a moment did he break the monotony of his study. The marshalled columns of strange letters were mowed down before him.
A great humble-bee, barred with tawny orange, worked his way up from his hole in the bank, buzzing shrilly in an impatient, stifled manner at finding his dwelling blocked as to its exit by a mountainous bulk. Ralph Peden rose in a hurry. The beast seemed to be inside his coat. He had instinctively hated bees and everything that buzzed ever since as a child he had made experiments with the paper nest of a tree-building wasp. The humble-bee buzzed a little more, discontentedly, thought of going back, crept out at last from beneath the Hebrew Lexicon, and appeared to comb his hair with his feeler. Then he slowly mounted along the broad blade of a meadow fox-tail grass, which bent under him as if to afford him an elastic send-off upon his flight. With a spring he lumbered up, taking his way over the single field which separated his house from the edge of the Grannoch water—where on the other side, above the glistening sickle-sweep of sand which looked so inviting, yet untouched under the pines by the morning sun, the hyacinths lay like a blue wreath of peat smoke in the hollows of the wood.
But there was a whiff of real peat smoke somewhere in the air, and Ralph Peden, before he returned to his book, was aware of the murmur of voices. He moved away from the humble-bee's dwelling and established himself on a quieter slope under a bush of broom. A whin-chat said ‘check, check’ above him, and flirted a brilliant tail; but Ralph Peden was not afraid of whin-chats. Here he settled himself to study, knitting his brows and drumming on the ground with the toe of one foot to concentrate his attention. The whin-chat could hear him murmuring to himself at intervals, ‘Surely that is the sense—it must be taken this way.’ Sometimes, on the contrary, he shook his head at Luther's Commentary, which lay on the short, warm turf before him, as if in reproof. Ralph was of opinion that Luther, but for his great protective reputation, and the fact that he had been dead some time, might have been served with a libel for heresy—at least if he had ministered to the Marrow kirk.
Then after a little he pulled his hat over his eyes to think, and lay back till he could just see one little bit of Loch Grannoch gleaming through the trees, and the farm of Nether Crae set on the hillside high above it. He counted the sheep on the green field over the loch, numbering the lambs twice because they frisked irresponsibly about, being full of frivolity and having no opinions upon Luther to sober them.
Gradually a haze spun itself over the landscape, and Ralph Peden's head slowly fell back till it rested somewhat sharply upon a spikelet of prickly whin. His whole body sat up instantly, with an exclamation which was quite in Luther's manner. He had not been sleeping. He rejected the thought; yet he acknowledged that it was nevertheless passing strange that, just where the old single- arched bridge takes a long stride over the Grannoch lane, there was now a great black pot a-swing above a blinking pale fire of peats and fir-branches, and a couple of great tubs set close together on stones which he had not seen before. There was, too, a ripple of girls' laughter, which sent a strange stirring of excitement along the nerves of the young man. He gathered his books to move away; but on second thoughts, looking through the long, swaying tendrils of the broom under which he sat, he resolved to remain. After all, the girls might be as harmless as his helper of yesterday.
‘Yet it is most annoying,’ he said; ‘I had been quieter in James's Court.’
Still he smiled a little to himself, for the broom did not grow in James's Court, nor the blackbirds flute their mellow whistle there.
Loch Grannoch stretched away three miles to the south, basking in alternate blue and white, as cloud and sky mirrored themselves upon it. The first broad rush of the ling was climbing the slopes of the Crae Hill above —a pale lavender near the loch-side, deepening to crimson on the dryer slopes where the heath-bells grew shorter and thicker together. The wimpling lane slid as silently away from the sleeping loch as though it were eloping and feared to awake an angry parent. The whole range of hill and wood and water was drenched in sunshine. Silence clothed it like a garment—save only for the dark of the shadow under the bridge, from whence had come that ring of girlish laughter which had jarred upon the nerves of Ralph Peden.
Suddenly there emerged from the indigo shade where the blue spruces overarched the bridge a girl carrying two shining pails of water. Her arms were bare, her sleeves being rolled high above her elbow; and her figure, tall and shapely, swayed gracefully to the movement of the pails. Ralph did not know before that there is an art in carrying water. He was ignorant of many things, but even with his views on woman's place in the economy of the universe, he could not but be satisfied with the fitness and the beauty of the girl who came up the path, swinging her pails with the compensatory sway of lissom body, and that strong outward flex of the elbow which kept the brimming cans swinging in safety by her side.
Ralph Peden never took his eyes off her as she came, the theories of James's Court notwithstanding. Nor indeed need we for a little. For this is Winifred, better known as Winsome Charteris, a very important young person indeed, to whose beauty and wit the poets of three parishes did vain reverence; and, what she might well value more, whose butter was the best (and commanded the highest price) of any that went into Dumfries market on Wednesdays.
Fair hair, crisping and tendrilling over her brow, swept back in loose and flossy circlets till caught close behind her head by a tiny ribbon of blue—then again escaping it went scattering and wavering over her shoulders wonderingly, like nothing on earth but Winsome Charteris's hair. It was small wonder that the local poets grew grey before their time in trying to find a rhyme for ‘sunshine,’ a substantive which, for the first time, they had applied to a girl's hair. For the rest, a face rather oval than long, a nose which the schoolmaster declared was ‘statuesque’ (used in a good sense, he explained to the village folk, who could never be brought to see the difference between a statue and an idol—the second commandment being of literal interpretation along the Loch Grannoch side), and eyes which, emulating the parish poet, we can only describe as like two blue waves when they rise just far enough to catch a sparkle of light on their crests. The subject of her mouth, though tempting, we refuse to touch. Its description has already wrecked three promising reputations.
But withal Winsome Charteris set her pails as frankly and plumply on the ground, as though she were plain as a pike-staff, and bent a moment over to look into the gypsy-pot swung on its birchen triangle. Then she made an impatient movement of her hand, as if to push the biting fir-wood smoke aside. This angered Ralph, who considered it ridiculous and ill-ordered that a gesture which showed only a hasty temper and ill-regulated mind should be undeniably pretty and pleasant to look upon, just because it was made by a girl's hand. He was angry with himself, yet he hoped she would do it again. Instead, she took up one pail of water after the other, swung them upward with a single dexterous movement, and poured the water into the pot, from which the steam was rising. Ralph Peden could see the sunlight sparkle in the water as it arched itself solidly out of the pails. He was not near enough to see the lilac sprig on her light summer gown; but the lilac sunbonnet which she wore, principally it seemed in order that it might hang by the strings upon her shoulders, was to Ralph a singularly attractive piece of colour in the landscape. This he did not resent, because it is always safe to admire colour.
Ralph would have been glad to have been able to slip off quietly to the manse. He told himself so over and over again, till he believed it. This process is easy. But he saw very well that he could not rise from the lee of the whin bush without being in full view of this eminently practical and absurdly attractive young woman. So he turned to his Hebrew Lexicon with a sigh, and a grim contraction of determined brows which recalled his father. A country girl was nothing to the hunter after curious roots and the amateur of finely shaded significances in Piel and Pual.
‘I will not be distracted!’ Ralph said doggedly, though a Scot, correct for once in his grammar; and he pursued a recalcitrant particle through the dictionary like a sleuthhound.
A clear shrill whistle rang through the slumberous summer air.
‘Bless me,’ said Ralph, startled, ‘this is most discomposing!’
He raised himself cautiously on his elbow, and beheld the girl of the water-pails standing in the full sunshine with her lilac sunbonnet in her hand. She wared it high above her head, then she paused a moment to look right in his direction under her hand held level with her brows. Suddenly she dropped the sunbonnet, put a couple of fingers into her mouth in a manner which, if Ralph had only known it, was much admired of all the young men in the parish, and whistled clear and loud, so that the stone-chat fluttered up indignant and scurried to a shelter deeper among the gorse. A most revolutionary young person this. He regretted that the humble-bee had moved him nearer the bridge.
Ralph was deeply shocked that a girl should whistle, and still more that she should use two fingers to do it, for all the world like a shepherd on the hill. He bethought him that not one of his cousins, Professor Habakkuk Thriepneuk's daughters (who studied Chaldaeic with their father), would ever have dreamed of doing that. He imagined their horror at the thought, and a picture, compound of Jemima, Kezia, and Kerenhappuch, rose before him.
Down the hill, out from beneath the dark green solid foliaged elder bushes, there came a rush of dogs.
‘Save us,’ said Ralph, who saw himself discovered, ‘the deil's in the lassie; she'll have the dogs on me!’—an expression he had learned from John Bairdison, his father's ‘man,’ who in an unhallowed youth had followed the sea.
Then he would have reproved himself for the unlicensed exclamation as savouring of the ‘minced oath,’ had he not been taken up with watching the dogs. There were two of them. One was a large, rough deerhound, clean cut about the muzzle, shaggy everywhere else, which ran first, taking the hedges in his stride. The other was a small, short-haired collie, which, with his ears laid back and an air of grim determination not to be left behind, followed grimly after. The collie went under the hedges, diving instinctively for the holes which the hares had made as they went down to the water for their evening drink. Both dogs crossed to windward of him, racing for their mistress. When they reached the green level where the great tubs stood they leaped upon her with short sharp barks of gladness. She fended them off again with gracefully impatient hand; then bending low, she pointed to the loch-side a quarter of a mile below, where a herd of half a dozen black Galloway cows, necked with the red and white of the smaller Ayrshires, could be seen pushing its way through the lush heavy grass of the water meadow.
‘Away by there! Fetch them, Roger!’ she cried. ‘Haud at them—the kye's in the meadow!’
The dogs darted away level. The cows continued their slow advance, browsing as they went, but in a little while their dark fronts were turned towards the dogs as after a momentary indecision they recognized an enemy. With a startled rush the herd drove through the meadow and poured across the unfenced road up to the hill pasture which they had left, whose scanty grasses had doubtless turned slow bovine thoughts to the coolness of the meadow grass, and the pleasure of standing ruminant knee-deep in the river, with wavy tail nicking the flies in the shade.
For a little while Ralph Peden breathed freely again, but his satisfaction was short-lived. One girl was discomposing enough, but here were two. Moreover the new-comer, having arranged some blankets in a tub to her satisfaction, calmly tucked up her skirts in a professional manner and got bare-foot into the tub beside them. Then it dawned upon Ralph, who was not very instructed on matters of household economy, that he had chanced upon a Galloway blanket-washing; and that, like the gentleman who spied upon Musidora's toilet, of whom he had read in Mr. James Thomson's Seasons, he might possibly see more than he had come out to see.
Yet it was impossible to rise composedly and take his way manseward. Ralph wished now that he had gone at the first alarm. It had become so much more difficult now, as indeed it always does in such cases. Moreover, he was certain that these two vagabonds of curs would return. And they would be sure to find him out. Dogs were unnecessary and inconvenient beasts, always sniffing and nosing about. He decided to wait. The newcomer of the kilts was after all no Naiad or Hebe. Her outlines did not resemble to any marked degree the plates in his excellent classical dictionary. She was not short in stature, but so strong and of a complexion so ruddily beaming above the reaming white which filled the blanket tub, that her mirthful face shone like the sun through an evening mist.
But Ralph did not notice that, in so far as she could, she had relieved the taller maiden of the heavier share of the work; and that her laugh was hung on a hair trigger, to go off at every jest and fancy of Winsome Charteris. All this is to introduce Miss Meg Kissock, chief and favoured maidservant at the Dullarg farm, and devoted worshipper of Winsome, the young mistress thereof. Meg indeed, would have thanked no one for an introduction, being at all times well able (and willing) to introduce herself.
It had been a shock to Ralph Peden when Meg Kissock walked up from the lane-side barefoot, and when she cleared the decks for the blanket tramping. But he had seen something like it before on the banks of the water of Leith, then running clear and limpid over its pebbles, save for a flour-mill or two on the lower reaches. But it was altogether another thing when, plain as print, he saw his first goddess of the shining water-pails sit calmly down on the great granite boulder in the shadow of the bridge, and take one small foot in her hand with the evident intention of removing her foot-gear and occupying the second tub.
The hot blood surged in responsive shame to Ralph Peden's cheeks and temples. He started up. Meg Kissock was tramping the blankets rhythmically, holding her green kirtle well up with both hands, and singing with all her might. The goddess of the shining pails was also happily unconscious, with her face to the running water. Ralph bent low and hastened through a gap in the fence towards the shade of the elder bushes on the slope. He did not run—he has never acknowledged that; but he certainly came almost indistinguishably near it. As soon, however, as he was really out of sight, he actually did take to his heels and run in the direction of the manse, disconcerted and demoralized.
The dogs completed his discomfiture, for they caught sight of his flying figure and gave chase—contenting themselves, however, with pausing on the hillside where Ralph had been lying, with indignant barkings and militant tails high crested in air.
Winsome Charteris went up to the broom bushes which fringed the slope to find out what was the matter with Tyke and Roger. When she got there, a slim black figure was just vanishing round the white bend of the Far Away Turn. Winsome whistled low this time, and without putting even one finger into her mouth.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.