ANDREW KISSOCK GOES TO SCHOOL
Love is, at least in maidens' hearts, of the nature of an intermittent fever. The tide of Solway flows, but the more rapid his flow the swifter his ebb. The higher it brings the wrack up the beach, the deeper, six hours after, are laid bare the roots of the seaweed upon the shingle. Now Winsome Charteris, however her heart might conspire against her peace, was not at all the girl to be won before she was asked. Also there was that delicious spirit of contrariness that makes a woman even when won, by no means seem won.
Besides, in the broad daylight of common day she was less attuned and touched to earnest issues than in the red dawn. She had even taken the poem and the exercise book out of the sacred enclosure, where they had been hid so long. She did not really know that she could make good any claim to either. Indeed, she was well aware that to one of them at least she had no claim whatever. Therefore she had placed both the note-book and the poem within the same band as her precious housekeeping account-book, which she reverenced next her Bible—which very practical proceeding pleased her, and quite showed that she was above all foolish sentiment. Then she went to churn for an hour and a half, pouring in a little hot water critically from time to time in order to make the butter come. This exercise may be recommended as an admirable corrective to foolish flights of imagination. There is something concrete about butter-making which counteracts an overplus of sentiment— especially when the butter will not come. And hot water may be overdone.
Now Winsome Charteris was a hard-hearted young woman—a fact that may not as yet have appeared; at least so she told herself. She had come to the conclusion that she had been foolish to think at all of Ralph Peden, so she resolved to put him at once and altogether out of her mind, which, as everyone knows, is quite a simple matter. Yet during the morning she went three times into her little room to look at her housekeeping book, which by accident lay within the same band as Ralph Peden's lost manuscripts. First, she wanted to see how much she got for butter at Cairn Edward the Monday before last; then to discover what the price was on that very same day last year. It is an interesting thing to follow the fluctuations of the produce market, especially when you churn the butter yourself. The exact quotation of documents is a valuable thing to learn. Nothing is so likely to grow upon one as a habit of inaccuracy. This was what her grandmother was always telling her, and it behooved Winsome to improve. Each time as she strapped the documents together she said, ‘And these go back today by Andra Kissock when he goes to school.’ Then she took another look, in order to assure herself that no forgeries had been introduced within the band while she was churning the butter. They were still quite genuine.
Winsome went out to relieve Jess Kissock in the dairy, and as she went she communed with herself: ‘It is right that I should send them back. The verses may belong to somebody else—somebody in Edinburgh—and, besides, I know them by heart.’
A good memory is a fine thing.
The Kissocks lived in one of the Craig Ronald cot-houses. Their father had in his time been one of the herds, and upon his death, many years ago, Walter Skirving had allowed the widow and children to remain in the house in which Andrew Kissock, senior, had died. Mistress Kissock was a large-boned, soft-voiced woman, who had supplied what dash of tenderness there was in her daughters. She had reared them according to good traditions, but as she said, when all her brood were talking at the same time, she alone quietly silent:
‘The Kissocks tak' efter their faither, they're great hands to talk—a' bena [except] An'ra'.’
Andrew was her youngest, a growing lump of a boy of twelve, who was exceeding silent in the house. Every day Andra betook himself to school, along the side of Loch Grannoch, by the path which looked down on the cloud-flecked mirror of the loch. Some days he got there, but very occasionally.
His mother had got him ready early this June morning. He had brought in the kye for Jess. He had helped Jock Gordon to carry water for Meg's kitchen mysteries. He had listened to a brisk conversation proceeding from the ‘room’ where his very capable sister was engaged in getting the old people settled for the day. All this was part of the ordinary routine. As soon as the whole establishment knew that Walter Skirving was again at the window over the marshmallows, and his wife at her latest book, a sigh of satisfaction went up and the wheels of the day's work revolved. So this morning it came time for Andra to go to school all too soon. Andra did not want to stay at home from school, but it was against the boy's principle to appear glad to go to school, so Andra made it a point of honour to make a feint of wanting to stay every morning.
‘Can I no bide an' help ye wi' the butter-kirnin' the day, Jess?’ said Andra, rubbing himself briskly all over as he had seen the ploughmen do with their horses. When he got to his bare red legs he reared and kicked out violently, calling out at the same time:
‘Wad ye then, ye tairger, tuts—stan' still there, ye kickin' beast!’ as though he were some fiery untamed from the desert.
Jess made a dart at him with a wet towel.
‘Gang oot o' my back kitchen wi' yer nonsense!’ she said. Andra passaged like a strongly bitted charger to the back door, and there ran away with himself, flourishing in the air a pair of very dirty heels. Ebie Farrish was employed over a tin basin at the stable door, making his breakfast toilet, which he always undertook, not when he shook himself out of bed in the stable loft at five o'clock, but before he went in to devour Jess with his eyes and his porridge in the ordinary way. It was at this point that Andra Kissock, that prancing Galloway barb, breaking away from all restrictions, charged between Ebie's legs, and overset him into his own horse-trough. The yellow soap was in Ebie's eyes, and before he got it out the small boy was far enough away. The most irritating thing was that from the back kitchen came peal on peal of laughter.
‘It's surely fashionable at the sea-bathin' to tak' a dook in the stable-trough, nae less!’
Ebie gathered himself up savagely. His temperature was something considerably above summer heat, yet he dared not give expression to his feelings, for his experiences in former courtships had led him to the conclusion that you cannot safely, having regard to average family prejudice, abuse the brothers of your sweetheart. After marriage the case is believed to be different.
Winsome Charteris stood at the green gate which led out of the court-yard into the croft, as Andra was making his schoolward exit. She had a parcel for him. This occasioned no surprise, nor did the very particular directions as to delivery, and the dire threatenings against forgetfulness or failure in the least dismay Andra. He was entirely accustomed to them. From his earliest years he had heard nothing else. He never had been reckoned as a ‘sure hand,’ and it was only in default of a better messenger that Winsome employed him. Then these directions were so explicit that there did not appear to be any possibility of mistake. He had only to go to the manse and leave the parcel for Mr. Ralph Peden without a message.
So Andrew Kissock, nothing loath, promised faithfully. He never objected to promising; that was easy. He carried the small, neatly wrapped parcel in his hand, walking most sedately so long as Winsome's eyes were upon him. He was not yet old enough to be under the spell of the witchery of those eyes; but then Winsome's eye controlled his sister Meg's hand, and for that latter organ he had a most profound respect.
Now we must take the trouble to follow in some detail the course of this small boy going to school, for though it may be of no interest in itself save as a study in scientific procrastination, a good deal of our history directly depends upon it.
As soon as Andrew was out of sight he pulled his leather satchel round so that he could open it with ease, and, having taken a handful of broken and very stale crumbs out of it for immediate use, he dropped Winsome's parcel within. There it kept company with a tin flask of milk which his mother filled for him every morning, having previously scalded it well to restore its freshness. This was specially carefully done after a sad occasion upon which his mother, having poured in the fine milk for Andra's dinner fresh from Crummie the cow, out of the flask mouth there crawled a number of healthy worms which that enterprising youth had collected from various quarters which it is best not to specify. Not that Andra objected in the least. Milk was a good thing, worms were good things, and he was above the paltry superstition that one good thing could spoil another. He will always consider to his dying day that the very sound licking which his mother administered to him, for spoiling at once the family breakfast and his own dinner, was one of the most uncalled-for and gratuitous, which, even in his wide experience, it had been his lot to recollect.
So Andra took his way to school. He gambolled along, smelling and rooting among the ragged robin and starwort in the hedges like an unbroken collie. It is safe to say that no further thought of school or message crossed his mind from the moment that the highest white steading of Craig Ronald sank out of view, until his compulsory return. Andra had shut out from his view so commonplace and ignominious facts as home and school.
At the first loaning end, where the road to the Nether Crae came down to cross the bridge, just at the point where the Grannoch lane leaves the narrows of the loch, Andra betook himself to the side of the road, with a certain affectation of superabundant secrecy.
With prodigious exactness he examined the stones at a particular part of the dyke, hunted about for one of remarkable size and colour, said ‘Hist! hist!’ in a mysterious way, and ran across the road to see that no one was coming.
As we have seen, Andra was the reader of the family. His eldest brother had gone to America, where he was working in New York as a joiner. This youth was in the habit of sending across books and papers describing the terrible encounters with Indians in the Boone country—the ‘dark and bloody land’ of the early romancers. Not one in the family looked at the insides of these relations of marvels except Andra, who, when he read the story of the Indian scout trailing the murderers of his squaw across a continent in order to annihilate them just before they entered New York city, felt that he had found his vocation—which was to be at least an Indian scout, if indeed it was too late for him to think of being a full-blooded Indian.
The impressive pantomime at the bridge was in order to ascertain whether his bosom companion, Dick Little, had passed on before him. He knew, as soon as he was within a hundred yards of the stone, that he had not passed. Indeed, he could see him at that very moment threading his way down through the tangle of heather and bog myrtle, or, as he would have said, ‘gall busses opposite.’ But what of that?—For mighty is the power of make-believe, and in Andra, repressed as he was at home, there was concentrated the very energy and power of some imaginative ancestry. He had a full share of the quality which ran in the family, and was exceeded only by his brother Jock in New York, who had been ‘the biggest leer in the country side’ before he emigrated to a land where at that time this quality was not specially marked among so many wielders of the long bow. Jock, in his letters, used to frighten his mother with dark tales of his hair-breadth escapes from savages and desperadoes on the frontier, yet, strangely enough, his address remained steadily New York.
Now it is not often that a Galloway boy takes to lying; but when he does, a mere Nithsdale man has no chance with him, still less a man from the simple-minded levels of the ‘Shire.’ Wigtonshire is invariably spoken of in Galloway as the Shire, Kirkcudbrightshire as the Stewartry. But Andra Kissock always lied from the highest motives. He elevated the saying of the thing that was not to the height of a principle. He often lied, knowing that he would be thrashed for it—even though he was aware that he would be rewarded for telling the truth. He lied because he would not demean himself to tell the truth.
It need not therefore surprise us in the least that when Dick Little came across the bridge he was greeted by Andra Kissock with the information that he was in the clutches of The Avenger of Blood, who, mounted upon a mettle steed with remarkably dirty feet, curveted across the road and held the pass. He was required to give up a ‘soda scone or his life.’ The bold Dick, who had caught the infection, stoutly refused to yield either. His life was dear to him, but a soda scone considerably dearer. He had rather be dead than hungry.
‘Then die, traitor!’ said Andra, throwing down his bag, all forgetful of Winsome Charteris's precious parcel and his promises thereanent. So these two brave champions had at one another with most surprising valour.
They were armed with wooden swords as long as themselves, which they manoeuvred with both hands in a marvellously savage manner. When a blow did happen to get home, the dust flew out of their jackets. But still the champions fought on. They were in the act of finishing the quarrel by the submission of Dick in due form, when Allan Welsh, passing across the bridge on one of his pastoral visitations, came upon them suddenly. Dick was on his knees at the time, his hands on the ground, and Andra was forcing his head determinedly down toward the surface of the king's highway. Meanwhile Dick was objecting in the most vigorous way.
‘Boys,’ said the stern, quiet voice of the minister, ‘what are you doing to each other? Are you aware it is against both the law of God and man to fight in this way? It is only from the beasts that perish that we expect such conduct.’
‘If ye please, sir,’ answered Andra in a shamefaced way, yet with the assurance of one who knows that he has the authorities on his side, ‘Dick Little wull no bite the dust.’
‘Bite the dust!—what do you mean, laddie?’ asked the minister, frowning.
‘Weel sir, if ye please, sir, the Buik says that the yin that got his licks fell down and bit the dust. Noo, Dick's doon fair aneuch. Ye micht speak till him to bite the dust!’
And Andra, clothed in the garments of conscious rectitude, stood back to give the minister room to deliver his rebuke.
The stern face of the minister relaxed.
‘Be off with you to school,’ he said; ‘I'll look in to see if you have got there in the afternoon.’
Andra and Dick scampered down the road, snatching their satchels as they ran. In half an hour they were making momentary music under the avenging birch rod of Duncan Duncanson, the learned Dullarg schoolmaster. Their explanations were excellent. Dick said that he had been stopped to gather the eggs, and Andra that he had been detained conversing with the minister. The result was the same in both cases—Andra getting double for sticking to his statement. Yet both stories were true, though quite accidentally so, of course. This is what it is to have a bad character. Neither boy, however, felt any ill-will whatever at the schoolmaster. They considered that he was there in order to lick them. For this he was paid by their parents' money, and it would have been a fraud if he had not duly earned his money by dusting their jackets daily. Let it be said at once that he did most conscientiously earn his money, and seldom overlooked any of his pupils even for a day.
Back at the Grannoch bridge, under the parapet, Allan Welsh, the minister of the Kirk of the Marrow, found the white packet lying which Winsome had tied with such care. He looked all round to see whence it had come. Then taking it in his hand, he looked at it a long time silently, and with a strange and not unkindly expression on his face. He lifted it to his lips and kissed the handwriting which addressed it to Master Ralph Peden. As he paced away he carefully put it in the inner pocket of his coat. Then, with his head farther forward than ever, and the immanence of his great brow overshadowing his ascetic face, he set himself slowly to climb the brae.
THE LOVE-SONG OF THE MAVIS
Winsome stamped her little foot in real anger now, and crumpling the paper in her hand she threw it indignantly on the floor. She was about to say something to Meg, but that erratic and privileged domestic was in her own room by this time at the top of the house, with the door barred.
But something like tears stood in Winsome's eyes. She was very angry indeed. She would speak to Meg in the morning. She was mistress of the house, and not to be treated as a child. Meg should have her warning to leave at the term. It was ridiculous the way that she had taken to speaking to her lately. It was clear that she had been allowing her far too great liberties. It did not occur to Winsome Charteris that Meg had been accustomed to tease her in something like this manner about every man under forty who had come to Craig Ronald on any pretext whatever—from young Johnnie Dusticoat, the son of the wholesale meal-miller from Dumfries, to Agnew Greatorix, eldest son of the Lady Elizabeth, who came over from the castle with books for her grandmother rather oftener than might be absolutely necessary, and who, though a papist, had waited for Winsome three Sabbath days at the door of the Marrow kirk, a building which he had never previously entered during his life.
Winsome went indignant to bed. It was altogether too aggravating that Meg should take on so, she said to herself.
‘Of course I do not care a button,’ she said as she turned her hot cheek upon the pillow and looked towards the pale gray-blue of the window-panes, in which there was already the promise of the morning; though yet it was hardly midnight of the short midsummer of the north.
‘It would be too ridiculous to suppose that I should care for anybody whom I have only seen twice. Why, it was more than a year before I really cared for dear old grannie! Meg might know better, and it is very silly of her to say things like that. I shall send back his book and paper tomorrow morning by Andrew Kissock when he goes to school.’ Still even after this resolution she lay sleepless.
‘Now I will go to sleep,’ said Winsome, resolutely shutting her eyes. ‘I will not think about him any more.’ Which was assuredly a noble and fitting resolve. But Winsome had yet to discover in restless nights and troubled morrows that sleep and thought are two gifts of God which do not come or go at man's bidding. In her silent chamber there seemed to be a kind of hushed yet palpable life. It seemed to Winsome as if there were about her a thousand little whispering voices. Unseen presences flitted everywhere. She could hear them laughing such wicked, mocking laughs. They were clustering round the crumpled piece of paper in the corner. Well, it might lie there forever for her.
‘I would not read it even if it were light. I shall send it back to him tomorrow without reading it. Very likely it is a Greek exercise, at any rate.’
Yet, for all these brave sayings, neither sleep nor dawn had come, when, clad in shadowy white and the more manifest golden glimmer of her hair, she glided to the windowseat, and drawing a great knitted shawl about her, she sat, a slender figure enveloped from head to foot in sheeny white. The shawl imprisoned the pillow tossed masses of her rippling hair, throwing them forward about her face, which, in the half light, seemed to be encircled with an aureole of pale Florentine gold.
In her hand Winsome held Ralph Peden's poem, and in spite of her determination not to read it, she sat waiting till the dawn should come. It might be something of great importance. It might only be a Greek exercise. It was, at all events, necessary to find out, in order that she might send it back.
It was a marvellous dawning, this one that Winsome waited for. Dawn is the secret of the universe. It thrills us somehow with a far-off prophecy of that eternal dawning when the God That Is shall reveal himself—the dawning which shall brighten into the more perfect day.
It was just the slack water—the water-shed of the night. So clear it was this June night that the lingering gold behind the western ridge of the Orchar Hill, where the sun went down, was neither brighter nor yet darker than the faint tinge of lucent green, like the colour of the inner curve of the sea-wave just as it bends to break, which had begun to glow behind the fir woods to the east.
The birds were waking sleepily. Chaffinches began their clear, short, natural bursts of song. ‘churr!’ said the last barn owl as he betook himself to bed. The first rook sailed slowly overhead from Hensol wood. He was seeking the early worm. The green lake in the east was spreading and taking a roseate tinge just where it touched the pines on the rugged hillside.
Beneath Winsome's window a blackbird hopped down upon the grass and took a tentative dab or two at the first slug he came across; but it was really too early for breakfast for a good hour yet, so he flew up again into a bush and preened his feathers, which had been discomposed by the limited accommodation of the night. Now he was on the topmost twig, and Winsome saw him against the crimson pool which was fast deepening in the east.
Suddenly his mellow pipe fluted out over the grove. Winsome listened as she had never listened before. Why had it become so strangely sweet to listen to the simple sounds? Why did the rich Tyrian dye of the dawn touch her cheek and flush the flowering floss of her silken hair? A thrush from the single laurel at the gate told her:
‘There—there—there—’ he sang, ‘Can't you see, can't you see, can't you see it? Love is the secret, the secret! Could you but know it, did you but show it! Hear me! hear me! hear me! Down in the forest I loved her! Sweet, sweet, sweet! Would you but listen, I would love you! All is sweet and pure and good! Twilight and morning dew, I love it, I love it, Do you, do you, do you?’
This was the thrush's love-song. Now it was light enough for Winsome to read hers by the red light of the midsummer's dawn.
This was Ralph's Greek exercise:
Sweet mouth, red lips, broad unwrinkled brow,
Sworn troth, woven hands, holy marriage vow,
Unto us make answer, what is wanting now?
Love, love, love, the whiteness of the snow;
Love, love, love, and the days of long ago.
Broad lands, bright sun, as it was of old;
Red wine, loud mirth, gleaming of the gold;
Something yet a-wanting—how shall it be told?
Love, love, love, the whiteness of the snow;
Love, love, love, and the days of long ago.
Large heart, true love, service void of sound,
Life-trust, death-trust, here on Scottish ground,
As in olden story, surely I have found—
Love, love, love, the whiteness of the snow,
Love, love, love, and the days of long ago.’
The thrush had ceased singing while Winsome read. It was another voice which she heard—the first authentic call of the springtime for her. It coursed through her blood. It quickened her pulse. It enlarged the pupil of her eye till the clear germander blue of the iris grew moist and dark. It was a song for her heart, and hers alone. She felt it, though no more than a leaf blown to her by chance winds. It might have been written for any other, only she knew that it was not. Ralph Peden had said nothing. The poem certainly did not suggest a student of divinity in the Kirk of the Marrow. There were a thousand objections—a thousand reasons— every one valid, against such a thing. But love that laughs at locksmiths is equally contemptuous of logic. It was hers, hers, and hers alone. A breath from Love's wing as he passed came again to Winsome. The blackbird was silent, but a thrush this time broke in with his jubilant love-song, while Winsome, with her love-song laid against a dewy cheek, paused to listen with a beating heart and a new comprehension:
‘Hear! hear! hear! Dear! dear! dear! Far away, far away, far away, I saw him pass this way, Tirrieoo, tirrieoo! so tender and true, Chippiwee, chippiwee, oh, try him and see! Cheer up! cheer up! cheer up! He'll come and he'll kiss you, He'll kiss you and kiss you, And I'll see him do it, do it, do it!’
‘Go away, you wicked bird!’ said Winsome, when the master singer in speckled grey came to this part of his song. So saying, she threw, with such exact aim that it went in an entirely opposite direction, a quaint, pink seashell at the bird, a shell which had been given her by a lad who was going away again to sea three years ago. She was glad now, when she thought of it, that she had kissed him because he had no mother, for he never came back any more.
‘Keck, keck!’ said the mavis indignantly, and went away.
Then Winsome lay down on her white bed well content, and pillowed her cheek on a crumpled piece of paper.
THE ADVENT OF THE CUIF
‘Here's the Cuif!’ said Meg Kissock, who with her company gown on, and her face glowing from a brisk wash, sat knitting a stocking in the rich gloaming light at the gable end of the house of Craig Ronald. Winsome usually read a book, sitting by the window which looked up the long green croft to the fir-woods and down to the quiet levels of Loch Grannoch, on which the evening mist was gathering a pale translucent blue. It was a common thing for Meg and Jessie Kissock to bring their knitting and darning there, and on their milking-stools sit below the window. If Winsome were in a mood for talk she did not read much, but listened instead to the brisk chatter of the maids. Sometimes the ploughmen, Jock Forrest and Ebie Farrish, came to ‘ca' the crack,’ and it was Winsome's delight on these occasions to listen to the flashing claymore of Meg Kissock's rustic wit. Before she settled down, Meg had taken in the three tall candles ‘ben the hoose,’ where the old people sat—Walter Skirving, as ever, silent and far away, his wife deep in some lively book lent her by the Lady Elizabeth out of the library of Greatorix Castle.
A bank of wild thyme lay just beneath Winsome's window, and over it the cows were feeding, blowing softly through their nostrils among the grass and clover till the air was fragrant with their balmy breath.
‘Guid e'en to ye, 'Cuif,'’ cried Meg Kissock as soon as Saunders Mowdiewort came within earshot. He came stolidly forward tramping through the bog with his boots newly greased with what remained of the smooth candle ‘dowp’ with which he had sleeked his flaxen locks. He wore a broad blue Kilmarnock bonnet, checked red and white in a ‘dam-brod’ pattern round the edge, and a blue-buttoned coat with broad pearl buttons. It may be well to explain that there is a latent meaning, apparent only to Galloway folk of the ancient time, in the word ‘cuif.’ It conveys at once the ideas of inefficiency and folly, of simplicity and the ignorance of it. The cuif is a feckless person of the male sex, who is a recognized butt for a whole neighbourhood to sharpen its wits upon.
The particular cuif so addressed by Meg came slowly over the knoll.
‘Guid e'en to ye,’ he said, with his best visiting manners.
‘Can ye no see me as weel, Saunders?’ said Jess, archly, for all was grist that came to her mill.
Saunders rose like a trout to the fly.
‘Ow aye, Jess, lass, I saw ye brawly, but it disna do to come seekin' twa lasses at ae time.’'
‘Dinna ye be thinkin' to put awa' Meg, an' then come coortin' me!’ said Jess, sharply.
Saunders was hurt for the moment at this pointed allusion both to his profession and also to his condition as a ‘seekin'’ widower.
‘Wha seeks you, Jess, 'ill be sair ill-aff!’ he replied very briskly for a cuif.
The sound of Meg's voice in round altercation with Jock Gordon, the privileged ‘natural’ or innocent fool of the parish, interrupted this interchange of amenities, which was indeed as friendly and as much looked for between lads and lasses as the ordinary greeting of ‘Weel, hoo's a' wi' ye the nicht?’ which began every conversation between responsible folks.
‘Jock Gordon, ye lazy ne'er-do-weel, ye hinna carried in a single peat, an' it comin' on for parritch-time. D'ye think my maister can let the like o' you sorn on him, week in, week oot, like a mawk on a sheep's hurdie? Gae wa' oot o' that, lyin' sumphin' an' sleepin' i' the middle o' the forenicht, an' carry the water for the boiler an' bring in the peats frae the stack.’
Then there arose a strange elricht quavering voice—the voice of those to whom has not been granted their due share of wits. Jock Gordon was famed all over the country for his shrewd replies to those who set their wits in contest with his. Jock is remembered on all Deeside, and even to Nithsdale. He was a man well on in years at this time, certainly not less than forty-five. But on his face there was no wrinkle set, not a fleck of gray upon his bonnetless fox-red shock of hair, weather-rusted and usually stuck full of feathers and short pieces of hay. Jock Gordon was permitted to wander as a privileged visitor through the length and breadth of the south hill country. He paid long visits to Craig Ronald, where he had a great admiration and reverence for the young mistress, and a hearty detestation for Meg Kissock, who, as he at all times asserted, ‘was the warst maister to serve atween the Cairnsmuirs.’
‘Richt weel I'll do yer biddin', Meg Kissock,’ he answered in his shrill falsetto, ‘but no for your sake or the sake o' ony belangin' to you. But there's yae bonny doo, wi' her hair like gowd, an' a fit that she micht set on Jock Gordon's neck, an' it wad please him weel. An' said she, 'Do the wark Meg Kissock bids ye,' so Jock Gordon, Lord o' Kelton Hill an' Earl o' Clairbrand, will perform a' yer wull. Otherwise it's no in any dochter o' Hurkle-backit Kissock to gar Jock Gordon move haund or fit.’
So saying, Jock clattered away with his water-pails, muttering to himself.
Meg Kissock came out again to sit down on her milking-stool under the westward window, within which was Winsome Charteris, reading her book unseen by the last glow of the red west.
Jess and Saunders Mowdiewort had fallen silent. Jess had said her say, and did not intend to exert herself to entertain her sister's admirer. Jess was said to look not unkindly on Ebie Farrish, the younger ploughman who had recently come to Craig Ronald from one of the farms at the ‘laigh’ end of the parish. Ebie had also, it was said, with better authority, a hanging eye to Jess, who had the greater reason to be kind to him, that he was the first since her return from England who had escaped the more bravura attractions of her sister.
‘Can ye no find a seat guid eneuch to sit doon on, cuif?’ inquired Meg with quite as polite an intention as though she had said, ‘Be so kind as to take a seat.’ The cuif, who had been uneasily balancing himself first on one foot and then on the other, and apologetically passing his hand over the sleek side of his head which was not covered by the bonnet, replied gratefully:
‘'Deed I wull that, Meg, since ye are sae pressin'.’
He went to the end of the milk-house, selected a small tub used for washing the dishes of red earthenware and other domestic small deer, turned it upside down, and seated himself as near to Meg as he dared. Then he tried to think what it was he had intended to say to her, but the words somehow would not now come at call. Before long he hitched his seat a little nearer, as though his present position was not quite comfortable.
But Meg checked him sharply.
‘Keep yer distance, cuif,’ she said; ‘ye smell o' the muils’ [churchyard earth].
‘Na, na, Meg, ye ken brawly I haena been howkin' since Setterday fortnicht, when I burriet Tam Rogerson's wife's guid- brither's auntie, that leeved grainin' an' deein' a' her life wi' the rheumatics an' wame disease, an' died at the last o' eatin' swine's cheek an' guid Cheddar cheese thegither at Sandy Mulquharchar's pig-killin'.’
‘Noo, cuif,’ said Meg, with an accent of warning in her voice, ‘gin ye dinna let alane deevin' us wi' yer kirkyaird clavers, ye'll no sit lang on my byne’.
From the end of the peat-stack, out of the dark hole made by the excavation of last winter's stock of fuel, came the voice of Jock Gordon, singing:
The deil he sat on the high lumtap, Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Gang yer ways and drink yer drap,Ye'll need it a' whan ye come to stap,
In my hole sae black an’ reeky, o! Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Hieland kilt an' Lawland hose, Parritch-fed an' reared on brose,
Ye'll drink nae drap whan ye come tae stap
In my hole sae black an’ reeky, O! Hech how, black an’ reeky!
Meg Kissock and her sweetheart stopped to listen. Saunders Mowdiewort smiled an unprofessional smile when he heard the song of the natural. ‘That's a step ayont the kirkyaird, Meg,’ he said. ‘Gin ye hae sic objections to hear aboot honest men in their honest graves, what say ye to that elricht craitur scraichin' aboot the verra deil an' his hearth-stane?’
Certainly it sounded more than a trifle uncanny in the gloaming, coming out of that dark place where even in the daytime the black Galloway rats cheeped and scurried, to hear the high, quavering voice of Jock Gordon singing his unearthly rhymes.
By-and-bye those at the house gable could see that the innocent had climbed to the top of the peat-stack in some elvish freak, and sat there cracking his thumbs and singing with all his might:
‘Hech how, black an’ reeky! In my hole sae black an reeky, O!’
‘Come doon oot o' that this meenit, Jock Gordon, ye gomeral!’ cried Meg, shaking her fist at the uncouth shape twisting and singing against the sunset sky like one demented.
The song stopped, and Jock Gordon slowly turned his head in their direction. All were looking towards him, except Ebie Farrish, the new ploughman, who was wondering what Jess Kissock would do if he put his arm around her waist.
‘What said ye?’ Jock asked from his perch on the top of the peat- stack.
‘Hae ye fetched in the peats an' the water, as I bade ye?’ asked Meg, with great asperity in her voice. ‘D'ye think that ye'll win aff ony the easier in the hinnerend, by sittin' up there like yin o' his ain bairns, takkin' the deil's name in vain?’
‘Gin ye dinna tak' tent to yersel', Meg Kissock,’ retorted Jock, ‘wi' yer eternal yammer o' 'Peats, Jock Gordon, an' 'Water, Jock Gordon,' ye'll maybes find yersel' whaur Jock Gordon'll no be there to serve ye; but the Ill Auld Boy'll keep ye in routh o' peats, never ye fret, Meg Kissock, wi' that reed-heed o' yours to set them a-lunt. Faith an' ye may cry 'Water! water!' till ye crack yer jaws, but nae Jock Gordon there—na, na—nae Jock Gordon there. Jock kens better.’
But at this moment there was a prolonged rumble, and the whole party sitting by the gable end (the ‘gavel,’ as it was locally expressed) rose to their feet from tub and hag-clog and milking- stool. There had been a great land-slip. The whole side of the peat-stack had tumbled bodily into the great ‘black peat-hole’ from which the winter's peats had come, and which was a favourite lair of Jock's own, being ankle-deep in fragrant dry peat ‘coom’— which is, strange to say, a perfectly clean and even a luxurious bedding, far to be preferred as a couch to ‘flock’ or its kindred abominations.
All the party ran forward to see what had become of Jock, whose song had come to so swift a close.
Out of the black mass of down-fallen peat there came a strange, pleading voice.
‘O guid deil, O kind deil, dinna yirk awa' puir Jock to that ill bit—puir Jock, that never yet did ye ony hairm, but aye wished ye weel! Lat me aff this time, braw deil, an' I'll sing nae mair ill gangs aboot ye!’
‘Save us!’ exclaimed Meg Kissock, ‘the craitur's prayin' to the Ill Body himsel'.’
Ebbie Farrish began to clear away the peat, which was, indeed, no difficult task. As he did so, the voice of Jock Gordon mounted higher and higher:
‘O mercy me, I hear them clawin' and skrauchelin'! Dinna let the wee yins wi' the lang riven taes and the nebs like gleds get haud o' me! I wad rayther hae yersel', Maister o' Sawtan, for ye are a big mensefu' deil. Ouch! I'm dune for noo, althegither; he haes gotten puir Jock! Sirce me, I smell the reekit rags o' him!’
But it was only Ebie Farrish that had him by the roll of ancient cloth which served as a collar for Jock's coat. When he was pulled from under the peats and set upon his feet, he gazed around with a bewildered look.
‘O man, Ebie Farrish,’ he said solemnly, ‘If I didna think ye war the deil himsel'—ye see what it is to be misled by ootward appearances!’
There was a shout of laughter at the expense of Ebie, in which Meg thought that she heard an answering ripple from within Winsome's room.
‘Surely, Jock, ye were never prayin' to the deil?’ asked Meg from the window, very seriously. ‘Ye ken far better than that.’
‘An' what for should I no pray to the deil? He's a desperate onsonsy chiel yon. It's as weel to be in wi' him as oot wi' him ony day. Wha' kens what's afore them, or wha they may be behaudin' to afore the morrow's morn?’ answered Jock stoutly.
‘But d'ye ken,’ said John Scott, the theological herd, who had quietly ‘daundered doon’ as he said, from his cot-house up on the hill, where his bare-legged bairns played on the heather and short grass all day, to set his shoulder against the gable end for an hour with the rest.
‘D'ye ken what Maister Welsh was sayin' was the new doctrine amang thae New Licht Moderates—'hireling shepherds,' he ca'd them? Noo I'm no on mysel' wi' sae muckle speakin' aboot the deil. But the minister was sayin' that the New Moderates threep [assert] that there's nae deil at a'. He dee'd some time since!’
‘Gae wa' wi' ye, John Scott! wha's gaun aboot doin' sae muckle ill then, I wad like to ken?’ said Meg Kissock.
‘Dinna tell me,’ said Jock Gordon, ‘that the puir deil's deed, and that we'll hae to pit up wi' Ebie Farrish. Na, na, Jock's maybe daft, but he kens better than that!’
‘They say,’ said John Scott, pulling meditatively at his cutty, ‘that the pooer is vested noo in a kind o' comy-tee [committee]!’
‘I dinna haud wi' comy-tees mysel',’ replied Meg; ‘it's juist haein' mony maisters, ilka yin mair cankersome and thrawn than anither!’
‘Weel, gin this news be true, there's a heep o' fowk in this parish should be mentioned in his wull,’ said Jock Gordon, significantly. ‘They're near kin till him—forby a heep o' bairns that he has i' the laich-side o' the loch. They're that hard there, they'll no gie a puir body a meal o' meat or the shelter o' a barn.’
‘But,’ said Ebie Farrish, who had been thinking that, after all, the new plan might have its conveniences, ‘gin there's nae deil to tempt, there'll be nae deil to punish.’
But the herd was a staunch Marrow man. He was not led away by any human criticism, nor yet by the new theology.
‘New Licht here, New Licht there,’ he said; ‘I canna' pairt wi' ma deil. Na, na, that's ower muckle to expect o' a man o' my age!’
Having thus defined his theological position, without a word more he threw his soft checked plaid of Galloway wool over his shoulders, and fell into the herd's long swinging heather step, mounting the steep brae up to his cot on the hillside as easily as if he were walking along a level road.
There was a long silence; then a ringing sound, sudden and sharp, and Ebie Farrish fell inexplicably from the axe-chipped hag-clog, which he had rolled up to sit upon. Ebie had been wondering for more than an hour what would happen if he put his arm round Jess Kissock's waist. He knew now.
Then, after a little Saunders Mowdiewort, who was not unmindful of his prearranged programme nor yet oblivious of the flight of time, saw the stars come out, he knew that if he were to make any progress, he must make haste; so he leaned over towards his sweetheart and whispered, ‘Meg, my lass, ye're terrible bonny.’
‘D'ye think ye are the first man that has telled me that, cuif?’ said Meg, with point and emphasis.
Jock Forrest, the senior ploughman—a very quiet, sedate man with a seldom stirred but pretty wit, laughed a short laugh, as though he knew something about that. Again there was a silence, and as the night wind began to draw southward in cool gulps of air off the hills, Winsome Charteris's window was softly closed.
‘Hae ye nocht better than that to tell us, cuif?’ said Meg, briskly, ‘nocht fresh-like?’
‘Weel,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort, groping round for a subject of general interest, his profession and his affection being alike debarred, ‘there's that young Enbra' lad that's come till the manse. He's a queer root, him.’
‘What's queer aboot him?’ asked Meg, in a semi-belligerent manner. A young man who had burned his fingers for her mistress's sake must not be lightly spoken of.
‘Oh, nocht to his discredit ava, only Manse Bell heard him arguin' wi' the minister aboot the weemen-folk the day that he cam'. He canna' bide them, she says.’
‘He has but puir taste,’ said Ebie Farrish; ‘a snod bit lass is the bonniest work o' Natur'. Noo for mysel'—’
‘D'ye want anither?’ asked Jess, without apparent connection.
‘He'll maybe mend o' that opeenion, as mony a wise man has dune afore him,’ said Meg, sententiously. ‘Gae on, cuif; what else aboot the young man?’
‘Oh, he's a lad o' great lear. He can read ony language back or forrit, up or doon, as easy as suppin' sowens. He can speak byordinar' graund. They say he'll beat the daddy o' him for preachin' when he's leecensed. He rade Birsie this mornin' too, after the kickin' randie had cuist me aff his back like a draff sack.’
‘Then what's queer aboot him?’ said Jess.
Meg said nothing. She felt a draft of air suck into Winsome's room, so that she knew that the subject was of such interest that her mistress had again opened her window. Meg leaned back so far that she could discern a glint of yellow hair in the darkness.
The cuif was about to light his pipe. Meg stopped him.
‘Nane o' yer lichts here, cuif,’ she said; ‘it's time ye were thinkin' aboot gaun ower the hill. But ye haena' telled us yet what's queer aboot the lad.’
‘Weel, woman, he's aye write—writin', whiles on sheets o' paper, and whiles on buiks.’
‘There's nocht queer aboot that,’ says Meg; ‘so does ilka minister.’
‘But Manse Bell gied me ane o' his writings, that she had gotten aboot his bedroom somewhere. She said that the wun' had blawn't aff his table, but I misdoot her.’
‘Yer ower great wi' Manse Bell an' the like o' her, for a man that comes to see me!’ said Meg, who was a very particular young woman indeed.
‘It was cuttit intil lengths like the metre psalms, but it luikit gye an' daft like, sae I didna' read it,’ said the cuif hastily.
‘Here it's to ye, Meg. I was e'en gaun to licht my cutty wi't.’
Something shone gray-white in Saunders's hand as he held it out to Meg, It passed into Meg's palm, and then was seen no more.
The session at the house end was breaking up. Jess had vanished silently. Ebie Farrish was not. Jock Forrest had folded his tent and stolen away. Meg and Saunders were left alone. It was his supreme opportunity.
He leaned over towards his sweetheart. His blue bonnet had fallen to the ground, and there was a distinct odour of warm candle- grease in the air.
‘Meg,’ he said, ‘yer maist amazin' bonny, an' I'm that fond o' ye that I am faain' awa' frae my meat! O Meg, woman, I think o' ye i' the mornin' afore the Lord's Prayer, I sair misdoot! Guid forgie me! I find mysel' whiles wonderin' gin I'll see ye the day afore I can gang ower in my mind the graves that's to howk, or gin Birsie's oats are dune. O Meg, Meg, I'm that fell fond o' ye that I gruppit that thrawn speldron Birsie's hint leg juist i' the fervour o' thinkin' o' ye.’
‘Hoo muckle hae ye i' the week?’ said Meg, practically, to bring the matter to a point.
‘A pound a week,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort, promptly, who though a cuif was a business man, ‘an' a cottage o' three rooms wi' a graun' view baith back an' front!’
‘Ow aye,’ said Meg, sardonically, ‘I ken yer graund view. It's o' yer last wife's tombstane, wi' the inscriptions the length o' my airm aboot Betty Mowdiewort an' a' her virtues, that Robert Paterson cuttit till ye a year past in Aprile. Na, na, ye'll no get me to leeve a' my life lookin' oot on that ilk' time I wash my dishes. It wad mak' yin be wantin' to dee afore their time to get sic-like. Gang an' speer Manse Bell. She's mair nor half blind onyway, an' she's fair girnin' fain for a man, she micht even tak' you.’
With these cruel words Meg lifted her milking-stool and vanished within. The cuif sat for a long time on his byne lost in thought. Then he arose, struck his flint and steel together, and stood looking at the tinder burning till it went out, without having remembered to put it to the pipe which he held in his other hand. After the last sparks ran every way and flickered, he threw the glowing red embers on the ground, kicked the pail on which he had been sitting as solemnly as if he had been performing a duty to the end of the yard, and then stepped stolidly into the darkness.
The hag-clog was now left alone against the wall beneath Winsome's window, within which there was now the light of a candle and a waxing and waning shadow on the blind as someone went to and fro. Then there was a sharp noise as of one clicking in the ‘steeple’ or brace of the front door (which opened in two halves), and then the metallic grit of the key in the lock, for Craig Ronald was a big house, and not a mere farm which might be left all night with unbarred portals.
Winsome stepped lightly to her own door, which opened without noise. She looked out and said, in a compromise between a coaxing whisper and a voice of soft command:
‘Meg, I want ye.’
Meg Kissock came along the passage with the healthy glow of the night air on her cheeks, and her candle in her hand. She seemed as if she would pause at the door, but Winsome motioned her imperiously within. So Meg came within, and Winsome shut to the door. Then she simply held out her hand, at which Meg gazed as silently.
‘Meg!’ said Winsome, warningly.
A queer, faint smile passed momentarily over the face of Winsome's handmaid, as though she had been long trying to solve some problem and had suddenly and unexpectedly found the answer. Slowly she lifted up her dark-green druggit skirt, and out of a pocket of enormous size, which was swung about her waist like a captured leviathan heaving inanimate on a ship's cable, she extracted a sheet of crumpled paper.
Winsome took it without a word. Her eye said ‘Good-night’ to Meg as plain as the minister's text.
Meg Kissock waited till she was at the door, and then, just as she was making her silent exit, she said:
‘Ye'll tak' as guid care o't as the ither yin ye fand. Ye can pit them baith thegither.’
Winsome took a step towards her as if with some purpose of indignant chastisement. But the red head and twinkling eyes of mischief vanished, and Winsome stood with the paper in her hand. Just as she had begun to smooth out the crinkles produced by the hands of Manse Bell who could not read it, Saunders who would not, and Meg Kissock who had not time to read it, the head of the last named was once more projected into the room, looking round the edge of the rose-papered door.
‘Ye'll mak' a braw mistress o' the manse, Mistress—Ralph—Peden!’ she said, nodding her head after each proper name.
THE MINISTER'S MAN ARMS FOR CONQUEST
Saunders Mowdiewort, minister's man and grave-digger, was going a sweethearting. He took off slowly the leathern ‘breeks’ of his craft, sloughing them as an adder casts his skin. They collapsed upon the floor with a hideous suggestion of distorted human limbs, as Saunders went about his further preparations. Saunders was a great, soft-bodied, fair man, of the chubby flaxen type so rare in Scotland—the type which looks at home nowhere but along the south coast of England. Saunders was about thirty-five. He was a widower in search of a wife, and made no secret of his devotion to Margaret Kissock, the ‘lass’ of the farm town of Craig Ronald.
Saunders was slow of speech when in company, and bashful to a degree. He was accustomed to make up his mind what he would say before venturing within the range of the sharp tongue of his well-beloved—an excellent plan, but one which requires for success both self-possession and a good memory. But for lack of these Saunders had made an excellent courtier.
Saunders made his toilet in the little stable of the manse above which he slept. As he scrubbed himself he kept up a constant sibilant hissing, as though he were an equine of doubtful steadiness with whom the hostler behooved to be careful. First he carefully removed the dirt down to a kind of Plimsoll load-line midway his neck; then he frothed the soap-suds into his red rectangular ears, which stood out like speaking trumpets; there he let it remain. Soap is for putting on the face, grease on the hair. It is folly then to wash either off. Besides being wasteful. His flaxen hair stood out in wet strands and clammy tags and tails. All the while Saunders kept muttering to himself:
‘An' says I to her: 'Meg Kissock, ye're a bonny woman,' says I. 'My certie, but ye hae e'en like spunkies [will-o'-the-wisps] or maybes,’ said Saunders in a meditative tone. ‘I had better say 'like whurlies in a sky-licht.' It micht be considered mair lovin' like!’
‘Then she'll up an' say: 'Saunders, ye mak' me fair ashamed to listen to ye. Be mensefu' [polite], can ye no?'’
This pleased Saunders so much that he slapped his thigh so that the pony started and clattered to the other side of his stall.
‘Then I'll up an' tak' her roun' the waist, an' I'll look at her like this—’ (here Saunders practised the effect of his fascinations in the glass, a panorama which was to some extent marred by the necessary opening of his mouth to enable the razor he was using to excavate the bristles out of the professional creases in his lower jaw. Saunders pulled down his mouth to express extra grief when a five-foot grave had been ordered. His seven-foot manifestations of respect for the deceased were a sight to see. He held the opinion that anybody that had no more 'conceit o' themsel' than to be buried in a three-foot grave, did not deserve to be mourned at all. This crease, then, was one of Saunders's assets, and had therefore to be carefully attended to. Even love must not interfere with it.)
‘Sae after that, I shall tak' her roun' the waist, juist like this—’ said he, insinuating his left arm circumferentially. It was an ill-judged movement, for, instead of circling Meg Kissock's waist, he extended his arm round the off hindleg of Birsie, the minister's pony, who had become a trifle short tempered in his old age. Now it was upon that very leg and at that very place that, earlier in the day, a large buzzing horse-fly had temporarily settled. Birsie was in no condition, therefore, for argument upon the subject. So with the greatest readiness he struck straight out behind and took Saunders what he himself called a ‘dinnle on the elbuck.’ Nor was this all, for the razor suddenly levered upwards by Birsie's hoof added another and entirely unprofessional wrinkle to his face.
Saunders uprose in wrath, for the soap was stinging furiously in the cut, and expostulated with Birsie with a handful of reins which he lifted off the lid of the corn-chest.
‘Ye ill-natured, thrawn, upsettin' blastie, ye donnart auld deevil!’ he cried.
‘Alexander Mowdiewort, gin ye desire to use minced oaths and braid oaths indiscriminately, ye shall not use them in my stable. Though ye be but a mere Erastian and uncertain in yer kirk membership, ye are at least an occasional hearer, whilk is better than naething, at the kirk o' the Marrow; and what is more to the point, ye are my own hired servant, and I desire that ye cease from makin' use o' any such expressions upon my premises.’
‘Weel, minister,’ said Saunders, penitently, ‘I ken brawly I'm i' the wrang; but ye ken yersel', gin ye had gotten a dinnle i' the elbuck that garred ye loup like a troot i' Luckie Mowatt's pool, or gin ye had cuttit yersel' wi' yer ain razor, wad 'Effectual Callin',' think ye, hae been the first word i' yer mooth? Noo, minister, fair Hornie!’
‘At any rate,’ said the minister, ‘what I would have said or done is no excuse for you, as ye well know. But how did it happen?’
‘Weel, sir, ye see the way o't was this: I was thinkin' to mysel', 'There's twa or three ways o' takin' the buiks intil the pulpit— There's the way consequential—that's Gilbert Prettiman o' the Kirkland's way. Did ever ye notice the body? He hauds the Bibles afore him as if he war Moses an' Aaron gaun afore Pharaoh, wi' the coat-taillies o' him fleein' oot ahint, an' his chin pointin' to the soon'in'-board o' the pulpit.’
‘Speak respectfully of the patriarchs,’ said Mr. Welsh sententiously. Saunders looked at him with some wonder expressed in his eyes.
‘Far be it frae me,’ he said, ‘to speak lichtly o' ony ane o' them (though, to tell the truth, some o' them war gye boys). I hae been ower lang connectit wi' them, for I hae carriet the buiks for fifteen year, ever since my faither racket himsel' howkin' the grave o' yer predecessor, honest man, an' I hae leeved a' my days juist ower the wa' frae the kirk.’
‘But then they say, Saunders,’ said the minister, smilingly, ‘'the nearer the kirk the farther frae grace.'’
‘'Deed, minister,’ said Saunders, ‘Grace Kissock is a nice bit lassie, but an' Jess will be no that ill in a year or twa, but o' a' the Kissocks commend me till Meg. She wad mak' a graund wife. What think ye, minister?’
Mr. Welsh relaxed his habitual severe sadness of expression and laughed a little. He was accustomed to the sudden jumps which his man's conversation was wont to take.
‘Nay,’ he said, ‘but that is a question for you, Saunders. It is not I that think of marrying her.’
‘The Lord be thankit for that! for gin the minister gaed speerin', what chance wad there be for the betheral?’
‘Have you spoken to Meg herself yet?’ asked Mr. Welsh.
‘Na,’ said Saunders; ‘I haena that, though I hae made up my mind to hae it oot wi' her this verra nicht—if sae it micht be that ye warna needin' me, that is—’ he added, doubtfully, ‘but I hae guid reason to hope that Meg—’
‘What reason have you, Saunders? Has Margaret expressed a preference for you in any way?’
‘Preference!’ said Saunders; ‘'deed she has that, minister; a maist marked preference. It was only the last Tuesday afore Whussanday [Whitsunday] that she gied me a clout i' the lug that fair dang me stupid. Caa that ye nocht?’
‘Well, Saunders,’ said the minister, going out, ‘certainly I wish you good speed in your wooing; but see that you fall no more out with Birsie, lest you be more bruised than you are now; and for the rest, learn wisely to restrain your unruly member.’
‘Thank ye, minister,’ said Saunders; ‘I'll do my best endeavours to obleege ye. Meg's clours are to be borne wi' a' complaisancy, but Birsie's dunts are, so to speak, gratuitous!’
CONCERNING TAKING EXERCISE
Winsome and Ralph walked silently and composedly side by side up the loaning under the elder-trees, over the brook at the watering- place to which in her hoydenish girlhood Winsome had often ridden the horses when the ploughmen loosed Bell and Jess from the plough. In these days she rode without a side-saddle. Sometimes she did it yet when the spring gloamings were gathering fast, but no one knew this except Jock Forrest, the ploughman, who never told any more than he could help.
Silence deep as that of yesterday wrapped about the farmhouse of Craig Ronald. The hens were all down under the lee of the great orchard hedge, chuckling low to themselves, and nestling with their feathers spread balloon-wise, while they flirted the hot summer dust over them. Down where the grass was in shadow a mower was sharpening his blade. The clear metallic sound of the ‘strake’ or sharpening strop, covered with pure white Loch Skerrow sand set in grease, which scythemen universally use in Galloway, cut through the slumberous hum of the noonday air like the blade itself through the grass. The bees in the purple flowers beneath the window boomed a mellow bass, and the grasshoppers made love by millions in the couch grass, chirring in a thousand fleeting raptures.
‘Wait here while I go in,’ commanded Winsome, indicating a chair in the cool, blue-flagged kitchen, which Meg Kissock had marked out in white, with whorls and crosses of immemorial antiquity—the same that her Pictish forefathers had cut deep in the hard Silurian rocks of the southern uplands.
It was a little while before, in the dusk of the doorway Winsome appeared, looking paler and fairer and more infinitely removed from him than before. Instinctively he wished himself out with her again on the broomy knowe. He seemed somehow nearer to her there. Yet he followed obediently enough.
Within the shadowed ‘ben’-room of Craig Ronald all the morning this oddly assorted pair of old people had been sitting—as indeed every morning they sat, one busily reading and often looking up to talk; while the other, the master of the house himself, sat silent, a majestic and altogether pathetic figure, looking solemnly out with wide-open, dreamy eyes, waking to the actual world of speech and purposeful life only at rare intervals.
But Walter Skirving was keenly awake when Ralph Peden entered. It was in fact he, and not his partner, who spoke first—for Walter Skirving's wife had among other things learned when to be silent— which was, when she must.
‘You honour my hoose,’ he said; ‘though it grieves me indeed that I canna rise to receive yin o' your family an' name! But what I have is at your service, for it was your noble faither that led the faithful into the wilderness on the day o' the Great Apostasy!’
The young man shook him by the hand. He had no bashfulness here. He was on his own ground. This was the very accent of the society in which he moved in Edinburgh.
‘I thank you,’ he said, quietly and courteously, stepping back at once into the student of divinity; ‘I have often heard my father speak of you. You were the elder from the south who stood by him on that day. He has ever retained a great respect for you.’
‘It was a great day,’ Walter Skirving muttered, letting his arm rest on the little square deal table which stood beside him with his great Bible open upon it—’a great day—aye, Maister Peden's laddie i' my hoose! He's welcome, he's mair nor welcome.’
So saying, he turned his eyes once more on the blue mist that filled the wide Grannoch Valley, and the bees hummed again in the honey-scented marshmallows so that all heard them.
‘This is my grandmother,’ said Winsome, who stood quite quiet behind her chair, swinging the sunbonnet in her hand. From her flower-set corner the old lady held out her hand. With a touch of his father's old-fashioned courtesy he stooped and kissed it. Winsome instinctively put her hand quickly behind her as though he had kissed that. Once such practices have a beginning, who knows where they may end? She had not expected it of him, though, curiously, she thought no worse of him for his gallantry.
But the lady of Craig Ronald was obviously greatly pleased.
‘The lad has guid bluid in him. That's the minnie [mother] o' him, nae doot. She was a Gilchrist o' Linwood on Nithsdale. What she saw in your faither to tak' him I dinna ken ony mair than I ken hoo it cam' to pass that I am the mistress o' Walter Skirving's hoose the day.—Come oot ahint my chair, lassie; dinna be lauchin' ahint folks's backs. D'ye think I'm no mistress o' my ain hoose yet, for a' that ye are sic a grand hoosekeeper wi' your way o't.’
The accusation was wholly gratuitous. Winsome had been grave with a great gravity. But she came obediently out, and seated herself on a low stool by her grandmother's side. There she sat, holding her hand, and leaning her elbow on her knee. Ralph thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life—an observation entirely correct. The old lady was clad in a dress of some dark stiff material, softer than brocade, which, like herself, was more beautiful in its age than even in youth. Folds of snowy lawn covered her breast and fell softly about her neck, fastened there by a plain black pin. Her face was like a portrait by Henry Raeburn, so beautifully venerable and sweet. The twinkle in her brown eyes alone told of the forceful and restless spirit which was imprisoned within. She had been reading a new volume of the Great Unknown which the Lady Elizabeth had sent her over from the Big House of Greatorix. She had laid it down on the entry of the young man. Now she turned sharp upon him.
‘Let me look at ye, Maister Ralph Peden. Whaur gat ye the 'Ralph'? That's nae westland Whig name. Aye, aye, I mind—what's comin' o' my memory? Yer grandfaither was auld Ralph Gilchrist; but ye dinna tak' after the Gilchrists—na, na, there was no ane o' them weel faured—muckle moo'd Gilchrists they ca'ed them. It'll be your faither that you favour.’
And she turned him about for inspection with her hand.
‘Grandmother—’ began Winsome, anxious lest she should say something to offend the guest of the house. But the lady did not heed her gentle monition.
‘Was't you that ran awa' frae a bonny lass yestreen?’ she queried, sudden as a flash of summer lightning.
It was now the turn of both the younger folk to blush. Winsome reddened with vexation at the thought that he should think that she had seen him run and gone about telling of it. Ralph grew redder and redder, and remained speechless. He did not think of anything at all.
‘I am fond of exercise,’ he said falteringly.
The gay old lady rippled into a delicious silver stream of laughter, a little thin, but charmingly provocative. Winsome did not join, but she looked up imploringly at her grandmother, leaning her head back till her tresses swept the ground.
When Mistress Skirving recovered herself,
‘Exerceese, quo' he, heard ye ever the like o' that? In their young days lads o' speerit took their exerceese in comin' to see a bonny lass—juist as I was sayin' to Winifred yestreen nae faurer gane. Hoot awa', twa young folk! The simmer days are no lang. Waes me, but I had my share o' them! Tak' them while they shine, bankside an' burnside an' the bonny heather. Aince they bloomed for Ailie Gordon. Once she gaed hand in hand alang the braes, where noo she'll gang nae mair. Awa' wi' ye, ye're young an' honest. Twa auld cankered carles are no fit company for twa young folks like you. Awa' wi' ye; dinna be strange wi' his mither's bairn, say I—an' the guid man hae's spoken for the daddy o' him.’
Thus was Ralph Peden made free of the Big Hoose of Craig Ronald.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.