chapter twenty two
A SCARLET POPPY
It was early afternoon at Craig Ronald. Afternoon is quite a different time from morning at a farm. Afternoon is slack-water in the duties of the house, at least for the womenfolk—except in hay and harvest, when it is full flood tide all the time, night and day. But when we consider that the life of a farm town begins about four in the morning, it will be readily seen that afternoon comes far on in the day indeed for such as have tasted the freshness of the morning.
In the morning, Winsome had seen that every part of her farm machinery was going upon well-oiled wheels. She had consulted her honorary factor, who, though a middle-aged man and a bachelor of long and honourable standing, enrolled himself openly and avowedly in the army of Winsome's admirers. He used to ask every day what additions had been made to the list of her conquests, and took much interest in the details of her costume. This last she mostly devised for herself with taste which was really a gift natural to her, but which seemed nothing less than miraculous to the maidens and wives of a parish which had its dressmaking done according to the canons of an art which the Misses Crumbcloth, mantua-makers at the Dullarg village, had learned twenty-five years before, once for all.
Now it was afternoon, and Winsome was once more at the bake-board. There were few things that Winsome liked better to do, and she daily tried the beauty of her complexion before the open fireplace, though her grandmother ineffectually suggested that Meg Kissock would do just as well.
While Winsome was rubbing her hands with dry meal, before beginning, she became conscious that some one was coming up the drive. So she was not at all astonished when a loud knock in the stillness of the afternoon echoed through the empty house and far down the stone passages.
It was Ralph Peden who knocked, as indeed she did not need to tell herself. She called, however, to Meg Kissock.
‘Meg,’ she said, ‘there is the young minister come to see my grandmother. Go and show him into the parlour.’
Meg looked at her mistress. Her reply was irrelevant. ‘I was born on a Friday,’ she said.
But notwithstanding she went, and received the young man. She took him into the parlour, where he was set down among strange voluted foreign shells with a pink flush within the wide mouth of every one of them. Here there was a scent of lavender and subtle essences in the air, and a great stillness. While he sat waiting, he could hear afar off the sound of rippling water. It struck a little chill over him that, after the letter he had sent, Winsome should not have come to greet him herself. From this he argued the worst. She might be offended, or—still more fatal thought—she and Meg might be laughing over it together.
A tall, slim girl entered the quiet parlour with a silent, catlike tread. She was at his side before he knew it. It was the girl whom he had met on his way to the Manse the first day of his arrival. Jess's experience as a maid to her ladyship has stood her in good stead. She had a fineness of build which even the housework of a farm could not coarsen. Besides, Winsome considered Jess delicate, and did not allow her to lift anything really heavy. So it happened that when Ralph Peden came Jess was putting the fresh flowers in the great bowls of low relief chinaware—roses from the garden and sprays of white hawthorn, which flowers late in Galloway, blue hyacinths and harebells massed together—yellow marigolds and glorious scarlet poppies, of which Jess with her taste of the savage was passionately fond. She had arranged some of these against a pale blue background of bunches of forget-me- nots, with an effect strangely striking in that cool, dusky room.
When Jess came in Ralph had risen instinctively. He shook hands heartily with her. As she looked up at him, she said:
‘Do you remember me?’
Ralph replied with an eager frankness, all the more marked that he had expected Winsome instead of Jess Kissock: ‘Indeed, how could I forget, when you helped me to carry my books that night? I am glad to find you here. I had no idea that you lived here.’
Which was indeed true, for he had not yet been able to grasp the idea that any but Winsome lived at Craig Ronald.
Jess Kissock, who knew that not many moments were hers before Meg might come in, replied:
‘I am here to help with the house. Meg Kissock is my sister.’ She looked to see if there was anything in Ralph's eyes she could resent; but a son of the Marrow kirk had not been trained to respect of persons.
‘I am sure you will help very much,’ he said, politely.
‘I'm not as strong as my sister, you see, so that I'm generally in the house,’ said Jess, who was carrying two dishes of flowers at once across the room. At Ralph's feet one of them overset, and poured all its wealth of blue and white and splashed crimson over the floor.
Jess stooped to lift them, crying shame on her own awkwardness. Ralph kindly assisted her. As they stooped to gather them together, Jess put forward all her attractions. Her lithe grace never showed to more advantage. Yet, for all the impression she made on Ralph, she might as well have wasted her sweetness on Jock Gordon—indeed, better so, for Jock recognized in her something strangely kin to his own wayward spirit.
When the flowers were all gathered and put back:
‘Now you shall have one for helping,’ said Jess, as she had once seen a lady in England do, and she selected a dark-red, velvety damask rose from the wealth which she had cut and brought out of the garden. Standing on tiptoe, she could scarcely reach his button-hole.
‘Bend down,’ she said. Obediently Ralph bent, good-humouredly patient, to please this girl who had done him a good turn on that day which now seemed so far away—the day that had brought Craig Ronald and Winsome into his life.
But in spite of his stooping, Jess had some difficulty in pinning in the rose, and in order to steady herself on tiptoe, she reached up and laid a staying hand on his shoulder. As he bent down, his face just touched the crisp fringes of her dark hair, which seemed a strange thing to him.
But a sense of another presence in the room caused him to raise his eyes, and there in the doorway stood Winsome Charteris, looking so pale and cold that she seemed to be a thousand miles away.
‘I bid you good-afternoon, Master Peden,’ said Winsome quietly; ‘I am glad you have had time to come and visit my grandmother. She will be glad to see you.’
For some moments Ralph had no words to answer. As for Jess, she did not even colour; she simply withdrew with the quickness and feline grace which were characteristic of her, without a flush or a tremor. It was not on such occasions that her heart stirred. When she was gone she felt that things had gone well, even beyond her expectation.
When Ralph at last found his voice, he said somewhat falteringly, yet with a ring of honesty in his voice which for the time being was lost upon Winsome:
‘You are not angry with me for coming today. You knew I would come, did you not?’
Winsome only said: ‘My grandmother is waiting for me. You had better go in at once.’
‘Winsome,’ said Ralph, trying to prolong the period of his converse with her, ‘you are not angry with me for writing what I did?’
Winsome thought that he was referring to the poem which had come to her by way of Manse Bell and Saunders Mowdiewort. She was indignant that he should try to turn the tables upon her and so make her feel guilty.
‘I received nothing that I had any right to keep,’ she said.
Ralph was silent. The blow was a complete one. She did not wish him to write to her any more or to speak to her on the old terms of friendship. He thought wholly of the letter that he had sent by Saunders the day before, and her coldness and changed attitude were set down by him to that cause, and not to the embarrassing position in which Winsome had surprised him when she came into the flower-strewn parlour. He did not know that the one thing a woman never really forgives is a false position, and that even the best of women in such cases think the most unjust things. Winsome moved towards the inner door of her grandmother's room.
Ralph put out his hand as if to touch hers, but Winsome withdrew herself with a swift, fierce movement, and held the door open for him to pass in. He had no alternative but to obey.
chapter twenty one
THE RETURN OF EBIE FARRISH
Now Ebie Farrish had been over at the Nether Crae seeing the lassies there in a friendly way after the scene in the byre, for Galloway ploughmen were the most general of lovers. Ebie considered it therefore no disloyalty to Jess that he would display his watch-guard and other accomplishments to the young maids at the Crae. Nor indeed would Jess herself have so considered it. It was only Meg who was so particular that she did not allow such little practice excursions of this kind on the part of her young men.
When Ebie started to go home, it was just midnight. As he came over the Grannoch bridge he saw the stars reflected in the water, and the long stretches of the loch glimmering pearl grey in the faint starlight and the late twilight. He thought they looked as if they were running down hill. His thoughts and doings that day and night had been earthly enough. He had no regrets and few aspirations. But the coolness of the twilight gave him the sense of being a better man than he knew himself to be. Ebie went to sit under the ministrations of the Reverend Erasmus Teends at twelve by the clock on Sunday. He was a regular attendant. He always was spruce in his Sunday blacks. He placed himself in the hard pews so that he could have a view of his flame for the time being. As he listened to the minister he thought sometimes of her and of his work, and of the turnip-hoeing on the morrow, but oftenest of Jess, who went to the Marrow kirk over the hills. He thought of the rise of ten shillings that he would ask at the next half- year's term, all as a matter of course—just as Robert Jamieson the large farmer, thought of the rent day and the market ordinary, and bringing home the ‘muckle greybeard full of excellent Glenlivat from the Cross Keys on Wednesday. Above them both the Reverend Erasmus Teends droned and drowsed, as Jess Kissock said with her faculty for expression, ‘bummelin' awa like a bubbly-Jock or a bum-bee in a bottle.’
But coming home in the coolness of this night, the ploughman was, for the time being, purged of the grosser humours which come naturally to strong, coarse natures, with physical frames ramping with youth and good feeding. He stood long looking into the lane water, which glided beneath the bridge and away down to the Dee without a sound.
He saw where, on the broad bosom of the loch, the stillness lay grey and smooth like glimmering steel, with little puffs of night wind purling across it, and disappearing like breath from a new knife-blade. He saw where the smooth satin plane rippled to the first water-break, as the stream collected itself, deep and black, with the force of the water behind it, to flow beneath the bridge. When Ebie Farrish came to the bridge he was a material Galloway ploughman, satisfied with his night's conquests and chewing the cud of their memory.
He looked over. He saw the stars, which were perfectly reflected a hundred yards away on the smooth expanse, first waver, then tremble, and lastly break into a myriad delicate shafts of light, as the water quickened and gathered. He spat in the water, and thought of trout for breakfast. But the long roar of the rapids of the Dee came over the hill, and a feeling of stillness with it, weird and remote. Uncertain lights shot hither and thither under the bridge, in strange gleams of reflection. The ploughman was awed. He continued to gaze. The stillness closed in upon him. The aromatic breath of the pines seemed to cool him and remove him from himself. He had a sense that it was Sabbath morning, and that he had just washed his face to go to church. It was the nearest thing to worship he had ever known. Such moments come to the most material, and are their theology. Far off a solitary bird whooped and whinnied. It sounded mysterious and unknown, the cry of a lost soul. Ebie Farrish wondered where he would go to when he died. He thought this over for a little, and then he concluded that it were better not to dwell on this subject. But the crying on the lonely hills awed him. It was only a Jack snipe from whose belated nest an owl had stolen two eggs. But it was Ebie Farrish's good angel. He resolved that he would go seldomer to the village public o' nights, and that he would no more find cakes and ale sweet to his palate. It was a foregone conclusion that on Saturday night he would be there, yet what he heard and saw on Grannoch Bridge opened his sluggish eyes. Of a truth there was that in the world which had not been there for him before. It is to Jess Kissock's credit, that when Ebie was most impressed by the stillness and most under the spell of the night, he thought of her. He was only an ignorant, godless, good-natured man, who was no more moral than he could help; but it is both a testimonial and a compliment when such a man thinks of a woman in his best and most solemn moments.
At that moment Jess Kissock was putting Winsome Charteris's letter into her pocket.
There is no doubt that poor, ignorant Ebie, with his highly developed body and the unrestrained and irregular propensities of his rudimentary soul, was nearer the Almighty that night than his keen-witted and scheming sweetheart.
A trout leaped in the calm water, and Ebie stopped thinking of the eternities to remember where he had set a line. Far off a cock crew, and the well-known sound warned Ebie that he had better be drawing near his bed. He raised himself from the copestone of the parapet, and solemnly tramped his steady way up to the ‘onstead’ of Craig Ronald, which took shape before him as he advanced like a low, grey-bastioned castle. As he entered the low square on his way across to the stable door he was surprised to notice a gleam of light in the byre. Ebie thought that some tramps were trespassing on the good nature of the mistress of the house, and he had the feeling of loyalty to his master's interests which distinguished the Galloway ploughman of an older time. He was mortally afraid of bogles, and would not have crossed the kirkyard after the glimmer of midnight without seeing a dozen corpse- candles; but tramps were quite another matter, for Ebie was not in the least afraid of mortal man—except only of Allan Welsh, the Marrow minister.
So he stole on tiptoe to the byre door, circumnavigating the ‘wicket,’ which poured across the yard its tell-tale plank of light. Standing within the doorway and looking over the high wooden stall, tenanted in winter by Jock, the shaggy black bull, Ebie saw Jess Kissock, lost in her dreams. The lantern was set on the floor in front of her. The candle had nearly burned down to the socket. Jess's eyes were large and brilliant. It seemed to Ebie Farrish that they were shining with light. Her red lips were pouted, and there was a warm, unwonted flush on her cheeks. In her dreams she was already mistress of a house, and considering how she would treat her servants. She would treat them kindly and well. She had heard her sister, who was servant at Earlston, tell how the ladies there treated their servants. Jess meant to do just the same. She meant to be a real lady. Ambition in a woman has a double chance, for adaptation is inborn along with it. Most men do not succeed very remarkably in anything, because at heart they do not believe in themselves. Jess did. It was her heritage from some Pict, who held back under the covert of his native woods so long as the Roman tortoise crept along, shelved in iron, but who drave headlong into a gap with all his men, when, some accident of formation showed the one chance given in a long day's march.
Ebie thought he had never seen Jess so beautiful. It had never struck him before that Jess was really handsomer than Meg. He only knew that there was a stinging wild-fruit fragrance about Jess and her rare favours he had never experienced in the company of any other woman. And he had a large experience.
Was it possible that she knew that he was out and was waiting for him? In this thought, which slowly entered in upon his astonishment, the natural Ebie forced himself to the front.
‘Jess!’ he exclaimed impulsively, taking a step within, the door. Instantly, as though some night-flying bat had flown against it, the candle went out—a breath wafted by him as lightly and as silently as a snowy owl flies home in the twilight. A subtle something, the influence of a presence, remained, which mingled strangely with the odours of the clover in the neuk, and the sour night-smell of the byre. Again there was a perfect silence. Without, a corncrake ground monotonously. A rat scurried along the rafter. Ebie in the silence and the darkness had almost persuaded himself that he had been dreaming, when his foot clattered against something which fell over on the cobble-stones that paved the byre. He stopped and picked it up. It was the byre lantern. The wick was still glowing crimson when he opened the little tin door. As he looked it drew slowly upward into a red star, and winked itself out. It was no dream. Jess had been in the byre. To meet whom? he asked himself.
Ebie went thoughtfully up-stairs, climbing the stable ladder as the first twilight of the dawn was slowly pouring up from beneath into a lake of light and colour in the east, as water gushes from a strong well-eye.
‘Ye're a nice boy comin' to yer bed at this time o' the mornin',’ said Jock Forrest from his bunk at the other side.
‘Nicht-wanderin' bairns needs skelpin'!’ remarked Jock Gordon, who had taken up his abode in a vacant stall beneath.
‘Sleep yer ain sleeps, ye pair o' draft-sacks, in yer beds,’ answered Ebie Farrish without heat and simply as a conversational counter.
He did not know that he was quoting the earliest English classic. He had never heard of Chaucer.
‘What wad Jess say?’ continued Jock Forrest, sleepily.
‘Ask her,’ said Ebie sharply.
‘At any rate, I'm no gaun to be disturbit in my nicht's rest wi' the like o' you, Ebie Farrish! Ye'll eyther come hame in time o' nicht, or ye'll sleep elsewhere—up at the Crae, gin ye like.’
‘Mind yer ain business,’ retorted Ebie, who could think of nothing else to say.
Down below daft Jock Gordon, with some dim appropriateness was beginning his elricht croon of— ‘The devil sat on his ain lum-tap, Hech how—black and reeky—’ when Jock Forrest, out of all patience, cried out down to him: ‘Jock Gordon, gin ye begin yer noise at twa o'clock i' the mornin' I'll come down an' pit ye i' the mill-dam!’
‘Maybes ye'll be cryin' for me to pit you i' the mill-dam some warm day!’ said Jock Gordon grimly, ‘but I'se do naething o' the kind. I'll een bank up the fires an' gie ye a turn till ye're weel brandered. Ye'll girn for mill-dams then, I'm thinkin'!’
So, grumbling and threatening in his well-accustomed manner, Jock Gordon returned to the wakeful silence which he kept during the hours usually given to sleep. It was said, however, that he never really slept. Indeed, Ebie and Jock were ready to take their oath that they never went up and down that wooden ladder, from which three of the rounds were missing, without seeing Jock Gordon's eyes shining like a cat's out of the dark of the manger where, like an ape, he sat all night cross-legged.
As soon as Jess was by herself in the empty byre, to which she withdrew herself with the parcel which the faithful and trustworthy Cuif had entrusted to her, she lit the lantern which always stood in the inside of one of the narrow triangular wickets that admitted light into the byre. Sitting down on the small hay stall, she pulled the packet from her pocket, looked it carefully over, and read the simple address, ‘In care of Margaret Kissock.’ There was no other writing upon the outside.
Opening the envelope carefully, he let the light of the byre lantern rest on the missive. It was written in a delicate but strong handwriting—the hand of one accustomed to forming the smaller letters of ancient tongues into a current script. ‘To Mistress Winifred Charteris,’ it ran. ‘Dear Lady: That I have offended you by the hastiness of my words and the unforgivable wilfulness of my actions, I know, but cannot forgive myself. Yet, knowing the kindness of your disposition, I have thought that you might be better disposed to pardon me than I myself. For I need not tell you, what you already know, that the sight of you is dearer to me than the light of the morning. You are connected in my mind and heart with all that is best and loveliest. I need not tell now that I love you, for you know that I love the string of your bonnet. Nor am I asking for anything in return, save only that you may know my heart and not be angry. This I send to ease its pain, for it has been crying out all night long, 'Tell her— tell her!' So I have risen early to write this. Whether I shall send it or no, I cannot tell. There is no need, Winsome, to answer it, if you will only let it fall into your heart and make no noise, as a drop of water falls into the sea. Whether you will be angry or not I cannot tell, and, truth to tell you, sweetheart, I am far past caring. I am coming, as I said, to Craig Ronald to see your grandmother, and also, if you will, to see you. I shall not need you to tell me whether you are angered with a man's love or no; I shall know that before you speak to me. But keep a thought for one that loves you beyond all the world, and as if there were no world, and naught but God and you and him. For this time fare you well. Ralph Peden.’
Jess turned it over with a curious look on her face. ‘Aye, he has the grip o't, an' she micht get him gin she war as clever as Jess Kissock; but him that can love yin weel can lo'e anither better, an' I can keep them sindry. I saw him first, an' he spak to me first. 'Ye're no to think o' him,' said my mither. Think o' him! I hae thocht o' nocht else. Think of him! Since when is thinkin' a crime? A lass maun juist do the best she can for hersel', be she cotman's dochter or laird's. Love's a' yae thing— kitchen or byre, but or ben. See a lad, lo'e a lad, get a lad, keep a lad! Ralph Peden will kiss me afore the year's oot,’ she said with determination.
So in the corner of the byre, among the fragrant hay and fresh-cut clover, Jess Kissock the cottar's lass prophesied out of her wayward soul, baring her intentions to herself as perhaps her sister in boudoir hushed and perfumed might not have done. There are Ishmaels also among women, whose hand is against every woman, and who stand for their own rights to the man on whom they have set their love; and the strange thing is, that such are by no means the worst of women either.
Stranger still, so strong and dividing to soul and marrow is a clearly defined purpose and determinately selfish, that such women do not often fail. And indeed Jess Kissock, sitting in the hay- neuk, with her candle in the lantern throwing patterns on the cobwebby walls from the tiny perforations all round, made a perfectly correct prophecy. Ralph Peden did indeed kiss her, and that of his own free will as his love of loves within a much shorter space of time than a year.
Strangely also, Jess the gipsy, the dark-browed Pictess, was neither angry nor jealous when she read Ralph's letter to Winsome. According to all rules she ought to have been. She even tried to persuade herself that she was. But the sight of Ralph writing to Winsome gave no pang to her heart. Nor did this argue that she did not love really and passionately. She did; but Jess had in her the Napoleon instinct. She loved obstacles. So thus it was what she communed with herself, sitting with her hand on her brow, and her swarthy tangle of hair falling all about her face. All women have a pose in which they look best. Jess looked best leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. Had there been a fender at her father's fireside Jess would have often sat on it, for there is a dangerous species of girl that, like a cat, looks best sitting on a fender. And such a girl is always aware of the circumstance.
‘He has written to Winsome,’ Jess communed with herself. ‘Well, he shall write to me. He loves her, he thinks; then in time he shall love me, and be sure perfectly o't. Let me see. Gin she had gotten this letter, she wadna hae answered it. So he'll come the morn, an' he'll no say a word to her aboot the letter. Na, he'll juist look if she's pleased like, and gin that gomeral Saunders gied him the rose, he'll no be ill to please eyther! But afore he gangs hame he shall see Jess Kissock, an' hear frae her aboot the young man frae the Castle!’ Jess took another look at the letter.’ It's a bonny hand o' write,’ she said, ‘but Dominie Cairnochan learned me to write as weel as onybody, an' some day he'll write to me. I'se no be byre lass a' my life. Certes no. There's oor Meg, noo; she'll mairry some ignorant landward man, an' leeve a' her life in a cot hoose, wi' a dizzen weans tum'lin' aboot her! What yin canna learn, anither can,’ continued Jess. ‘I hae listened to graun' fowk speakin', an' I can speak as weel as onybody. I'll disgrace nane. Gin I canna mak' mysel' fit for kirk or manse, my name's no Jess Kissock. I'm nae country lump, to be left where I'm set doon, like a milkin' creepie, an' kickit ower when they are dune wi' me.’
It is of such women, born to the full power and passion of sex, and with all the delicate keenness of the feminine brain, utterly without principle or scruple, that the Cleopatras are made. For black-browed Egypt, the serpent of old Nile, can sit in a country byre, and read a letter to another woman. For Cleopatra is not history; she is type.
AT THE BARN END
In a little while the cows were all milked. Saunders was standing at the end of the barn, looking down the long valley of the Grannoch water. There was a sweet coolness in the air, which he vaguely recognized by taking off his hat.
‘Open the yett!’ cried Jess, from the byre door. Saunders heard the clank and jangle of the neck chains of Hornie and Specky and the rest, as they fell from their necks, loosened by Jess's hand. The sound grew fainter and fainter as Jess proceeded to the top of the byre where Marly stood soberly sedate and chewed her evening cud. Now Marly did not like Jess, therefore Meg always milked her; she would not, for some special reason of her own, ‘let doon her milk’ when Jess laid a finger on her. This night she only shook her head and pushed heavily against Jess as she came.
‘Hand up there, ye thrawn randy!’ said Jess in byre tones.
And so very sulkily Marly moved out, looking for Meg right and left as she did so. She had her feelings as well as anyone, and she was not the first who had been annoyed by the sly, mischievous gipsy with the black eyes, who kept so quiet before folk. As she went out of the byre door, Jess laid her switch smartly across Marly's loins, much to the loss of dignity of that stately animal, who, taking a hasty step, slipped on the threshold, and overtook her neighbours with a slow resentment gathering in her matronly breast.
When Saunders Mowdiewort heard the last chain drop in the byre, and the strident tones of Jess exhorting Marly, he took a few steps to the gate of the hill pasture. He had to pass along a short home-made road, and over a low parapetless bridge constructed simply of four tree-trunks laid parallel and covered with turf. Then he dropped the bars of the gate into the hill pasture with a clatter, which came to Winsome's ears as she stood at her window looking out into the night. She was just thinking at that moment what a good thing it was that she had sent back Ralph Peden's poem. So, in order to see whether this were so or not, she repeated it all over again to herself.
When he came back again to the end of the barn, Saunders found Jess standing there, with the wistful light in her eyes which that young woman of many accomplishments could summon into them as easily as she could smile. For Jess was a minx—there is no denying the fact. Yet even slow Saunders admitted that, though she was nothing to Meg, of course, still there was something original and attractive about her—like original sin.
Jess was standing with her head on one side, putting the scarlet head of a poppy among her black hair. Jess had strange tastes, which would be called artistic nowadays in some circles. Her liking was always bizarre and excellent, the taste of the primitive Galloway Pict from whom she was descended, or of that picturesque Glenkens warrior, who set a rowan bush on his head on the morning when he was to lead the van at the battle of the Standard. Scotland was beaten on that great occasion, it is true; but have the chroniclers, who complain of the place of Galloway men in the ranks, thought how much more terribly Scotland might have been beaten had Galloway not led the charge? But this is written just because Jess Kissock, a Galloway farm lassie, looked something like a cast back to the primitive Pict of the south, a fact which indeed concerns the story not at all, for Saunders Mowdiewort had not so much as ever heard of a Pict.
Jess did not regard Saunders Mowdiewort highly at any time. He was one of Meg's admirers, but after all he was a man, and one can never tell. It was for this reason that she put the scarlet poppy into her hair.
She meditated ‘I maybe haena Meg's looks to the notion o' some folk, but I mak' a heap better use o' the looks that I hae, an' that is a great maitter!’
‘Saunders,’ said Jess softly, going up to the Cuif and pretending to pick a bit of heather off his courting coat. She did this with a caressing touch which soothed the widower, and made him wish that Meg would do the like. He began to think that he had never properly valued Jess.
‘Is Meg comin' oot again?’ Jess inquired casually, the scarlet poppy set among the blue-black raven's wings, and brushing his beard in a distracting manner.
Saunders would hare given a good deal to be able to reply in the affirmative, but Meg had dismissed him curtly after the milking, with the intimation that it was time he was making manseward. As for her, she was going within doors to put the old folks to bed.
After being satisfied on this point the manner of Jess was decidedly soothing. That young woman had a theory which was not quite complimentary either to the sense or the incorruptibility of men. It was by showing an interest in them and making them think that they (or at least the one being operated upon) are the greatest and most fascinating persons under the sun, almost anything can be done. This theory has been acted upon with results good and bad, in other places besides the barn end of Craig Ronald.
‘They're a' weel at the Manse?’ said Jess, tentatively.
‘On aye,’ said Saunders, looking round the barn end to see if Meg could see him. Satisfied that Meg was safe in bed, Saunders put his hand on Jess's shoulder—the sleek-haired, candle-greased deceiver that he was.
‘Jess, ye're bonny,’ said he.
‘Na, na,’ said Jess, very demurely, ‘it's no me that's bonny—its Meg!’
Jess was still looking at him, and interested in getting all the rough wool off the collar of his homespun coat.
The Samson of the graveyard felt his strength deserting him.
‘Davert, Jess lass, but it's a queer thing that it never cam across me that ye were bonny afore!’
Jess looked down. The Cuif thought that it was because she was shy, and his easy heart went out to her; but had he seen the smile that was wasted on a hopping sparrow beneath, and especially the wicked look in the black eyes, he might have received some information as to the real sentiments of girls who put red poppies in their hair in order to meet their sisters' sweethearts at the barn end.
‘Is the young minister aye bidin' at the Manse?’ asked Jess.
‘Aye, he is that!’ said Saunders, ‘he's a nice chiel' yon. Ye'll see him whiles ower by here. They say—that is Manse Bell says— that he's real fond o' yer young mistress here. Ken ye ocht aboot that, Jess?’
‘Hoots, havers, our young mistress is no for penniless students, I wot weel. There'll be nocht in't, an' sae ye can tell Bell o' the Manse, gin you an' her is so chief [intimate].’
‘Very likely ye're richt. There'll be nocht in't, I'm thinkin'—at least on her side. But what o' the young man? D'ye think he's sair ta'en up aboot Mistress Winsome? Meg was sayin' so.’
‘Meg thinks there's naebody worth lookin' at in the warl' but hersel' and Mistress Winifred Charteris, as she ca's hersel'; but there's ithers thinks different.’
‘What hae ye against her, Jess? I thocht that she's a fell fine young leddy.’
‘Oh she's richt eneuch, but there's bonny lasses as weel as her; an' maybe, gin young Maister Peden comes ower by to Craig Ronald to see a lass nnkenned o' a'—what faut wad there be in that?’
‘Then it's Meg he comes to see, and no' the young mistress?’ said the alarmed grave-digger.
‘Maybes aye an' maybes no—there's bonny lasses forby Meg Kissock for them that hae gotten een in their heads.’
‘Wi' Jess! Is't yerself?’ said Saunders.
Jess was discreetly silent.
‘Ye'll no tell onybody, wull ye, Maister Mowdiewort?’ she said anxiously.
To Saunders this was a great deal better than being called a ‘Cuif.’
‘Na, Jess, lass, I'll no tell a soul—no yin.’
‘No' even Meg -mind!’ repeated Jess, who felt that this was a vital point.
So Saunders promised, though he had intended to do so on the first opportunity.
‘Mind, if ye do, I'll never gie ye a hand wi' Meg again as lang as I leeve!’ said Jess emphatically.
‘Jess, d'ye think she likes me?’ asked the widower in a hushed whisper.
‘Saunders, I'm juist sure o't,’ replied Jess with great readiness. ‘But she's no yin o' the kind to let on.’
‘Na,’ groaned Saunders, ‘I wuss to peace she was. But ye mind me that I gat a letter frae the young minister that I was to gie to Meg. But as you're the yin he comes to see, I maun as weel gie't direct to yoursel'.’
‘It wad be as weel,’ said Jess, with a strange sort of sea-fire like moonshine in her eyes.
Saunders passed over a paper to her readily, and Jess, with her hand still on his coat-collar, in a way that Meg had never used, thanked him in her own way.
‘Juist bide a wee,’ she said; ‘I'll be wi' ye in a minute!’
Jess hurried down into the old square-plotted garden, which ran up to the orchard trees. She soon found a moss-rose bush from which she selected a bud, round which the soft feathery envelope was just beginning to curl back. Then she went round by the edge of the brook which keeps damp one side of the orchard, where she found some single stems of forget-me-nots, shining in the dusk like beaded turquoise. She pulled some from the bottom of the half-dry ditch, and setting the pale moss-rosebud in the middle, she bound the whole together with a striped yellow and green withe. Then snipping the stacks with her pocket scissors, she brought the posy to Saunders, with instructions to wrap it in a dock-leaf and never to let his hands touch it the whole way.
Saunders, dazed and fascinated, forgetful even of Meg and loyalty, promised. The glamour of Jess, the gypsy, was upon him.
‘But what am I to say,’ he asked.
‘Say its frae her that he sent the letter to; he'll ken brawly that Meg hadna the gumption to send him that!’ said Jess candidly.
Saunders said his good-night in a manner which would certainly have destroyed all his chances with Meg had she witnessed the parting. Then he stolidly tramped away down the loaning.
Jess called after him, struck with a sudden thought. ‘See that ye dinna gie it to him afore the minister.’
Then she put her hands beneath her apron and walked home meditating. ‘To be a man is to be a fool,’ said Jess Kissock, putting her whole experience into a sentence. Jess was a daughter of the cot; put then she was also a daughter of Eve, who had not even so much as a cot.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.