chapter twenty nine
THE DARK OF THE MOON AT THE GRANNOCH BRIDGE
Over the manse of Dullarg, still and grey, with only the two men in it; over the low-walled rectangular farm steading of Craig Ronald, fell alike the midsummer night. Ten o'clock on an early July evening is in Galloway but a modified twilight. But as the sun went down behind the pines he sent an angry gleam athwart the green braes. The level cloud-band into which he plunged drew itself upward to the zenith, and, like the eyelid of a gigantic eye, shut down as though God in his heaven were going to sleep, and the world was to be left alone.
It was the dark of the moon, and even if there had been full moon its light would have been as completely shut out by the cloud canopy as was the mild diffusion of the blue-grey twilight. So it happened that, as Ralph Peden took his way to his first love-tryst, it was all that he could do to keep the path, so dark had it become. But there was no rain—hardly yet even the hint or promise of rain.
Yet under the cloud there was a great solitariness—the murmur of a land where no man had come since the making of the world. Down in the sedges by the lake a blackcap sang sweetly, waesomely, the nightingale of Scotland. Far on the moors a curlew cried out that its soul was lost. Nameless things whinnied in the mist-filled hollows. On the low grounds there lay a white mist knee-deep, and Ralph Peden waded in it as in a shallow sea. So in due time he came near to the place of his tryst.
Never had he stood so before. He stilled the beating of his heart with his hand, so loud and riotous it was in that silent place. He could hear, loud as an insurrection, the quick, unequal double- knocking in his bosom.
A grasshopper, roosting on a blade of grass beneath, his feet, tumbled off and gave vent to his feelings in a belated ‘chirr.’ Overhead somewhere a raven croaked dismally and cynically at intervals. Ralph's ears heard these things as he waited, with every sense on the alert, at the place of his love-tryst.
He thrilled with the subtle hope of strange possibilities. A mill-race of pictures of things sweet and precious ran through his mind. He saw a white-spread table, with Winsome seated opposite to himself, tall, fair, and womanly, the bright heads of children between them. And the dark closed in. Again he saw Winsome with her head on his arm, standing looking out on the sunrise from the hilltop, whence they had watched it not so long ago. The thought brought him to his pocket-book. He took it out, and in the darkness touched his lips to the string of the lilac sunbonnet. It surely must be past ten now, he thought. Would she not come? He had, indeed, little right to ask her, and none at all to expect her. Yet he had her word of promise—one precious line. What would he say to her when she came? He would leave that to be settled when his arms were about her. But perhaps she would be colder than before. They would sit, he thought, on the parapet of the bridge. There were no fir-branches to part them with intrusive spikes. So much at least should be his.
But then, again, she might not come at all! What more likely than that she had been detained by her grandmother? How could he expect it? Indeed, he told himself he did not expect it. He had come out here because it was a fine night, and the night air cooled his brain for his studies. His heart, hammering on his life's anvil, contradicted him. He could not have repeated the Hebrew alphabet. His head, bent a little forward in the agony of listening, whirled madly round; the ambient darkness surrounding all.
There! He heard a footstep. There was a light coming down the avenue under the elders. At last! No, it was only the glow-worms under the leaves, shining along the grass by the wayside. The footstep was but a restless sheep on the hillside. Then some one coughed, with the suppressed sound of one who covers his mouth with his hand. Ralph was startled, but almost laughed to think that it was still only the lamb on the other side of the wall moving restlessly about in act to feed. Time and again the blood rushed to his temples, for he was sure that he heard her coming to him. But it was only the echo of the blood surging blindly through his own veins, or some of the night creatures fulfilling their love-trysts, and seeking their destinies under the cloud of night.
Suddenly his whole soul rose in revolt against him. Certainly now he heard a light and swift footstep. There was a darker shape coming towards him against the dim, faint grey glimmer of the loch. It was his love, and she had come out to him at his bidding. He had dreamed of an angel, and lo! now he should touch her in the hollow night, and find that she was a warm, breathing woman.
Wrapped from head to foot in a soft close shawl, she came to him. He could see her now, but only as something darker against the canopy of the night. So, in the blissful dark, which makes lovers brave, he opened his arms to receive her. For the first time in his life he drew them to him again not empty.
The thrill electric of the contact, the yielding quiescence of the girl whom he held to his breast, stilled his heart's tumultuous beating. She raised her head, and their lips drew together into a long kiss. What was this thing? It was a kiss in which he tasted a strange alien flavour even through the passion of it. A sense of wrong and disappointment flowed round Ralph's heart. So on the bridge in the darkness, where many lovers had stood ever since the first Pict trysted his dark-browed bride by the unbridged water, the pair stood very still. They only breathed each other's breath. Something familiar struck on Ralph's senses. He seemed to be standing silent in the parlour at Craig Ronald—not here, with his arms round his love—and somehow between them there rose unmistakable the perfume of the flower which for an hour he had carried in his coat on the day that he and she went a-fishing.
‘Beloved,’ he said tenderly, looking down, ‘you are very good to me to come!’
For all reply a face was held close pressed to his. The mists of night had made her cheek damp. He passed his hand across the ripples of her hair. Half hidden by the shawl he could feel the crisping of the curls under his fingers.
It was harder in texture than he had fancied Winsome's hair would be. He half smiled that he had time at such a moment to think such a thing. It was strange, however. He had thought a woman's hair was like floss silk—at least Winsome's, for he had theorized about none other.
‘Winsome, dear!’ he said, again bending his head to look down, ‘I have to go far away, and I wanted to tell you. You are not angry with me, sweetest, for asking you to come? I could not go without bidding you good-bye, and in the daytime I might not have seen you alone. You know that I love you with all my life and all my heart. And you love me—at least a little. Tell me, beloved!’
Still there was no answer. Ralph waited with some certitude and ease from pain, for indeed the clasping arms told him all he wished to know.
There was a brightness low down in the west. Strangely and slowly the gloomy eyelid of cloud which had fallen athwart the evening lifted for a moment its sullen fringe; a misty twilight of lurid light flowed softly over the land. The shawl fell back like a hood from off the girl's shoulders. She looked up throbbing and palpitating. Ralph Peden was clasping Jess Kissock in his arms. She had kept her word. He had kissed her of his own free will, and that within a day. Her heart rejoiced over Winsome. ‘So much, at least, she cannot take from me.’
Ralph Peden's heart stopped beating for a tremendous interval of seconds. Then the dammed-back blood-surge drave thundering in his ears. He swayed, and would have fallen but for the parapet of the bridge and the clinging arms about his neck. All his nature and love in full career stopped dead. The shock almost unhinged his soul and reason. It was still so dark that, though he could see the outline of her head and the paleness of her face, nothing held him but the intense and vivid fascination of her eyes. Ralph would have broken away, indignant and amazed, but her arms and eyes held him close prisoner, the dismayed turmoil in his own heart aiding.
‘Yes, Ralph Peden,’ Jess Kissock said, cleaving to him, ‘and you hate me because it is I and not another. You think me a wicked girl to come to you in her place. But you called her because you loved her, and I have come because I loved you as much. Have I not as much right? Do not dream that I came for aught but that. Have I not as good a right to love as you?’
She prisoned his face fiercely between her hands, and held him off from her as if to see into his soul by the light of the lingering lake of ruddy light low in the west.
‘In your Bible where is there anything that hinders a woman from loving? Yet I know you will despise me for loving you, and hate me for coming in her place.’
‘I do not hate you!’ said Ralph, striving to go without rudely unclasping the girl's hands. Her arms fell instantly again about his neck, locking themselves behind.
‘No, you shall not go till you have heard all, and then you can cast me into the loch as a worthless thing that you are better rid of.’
Through his disappointment and his anger, Ralph was touched. He would have spoken, but the girl went on:
‘No, you do not hate me—I am not worth it. You despise me, and do you think that is any better? I am only a cottar's child. I have been but a waiting-maid. But I have read how maids have loved the kings and the kings loved them. Yes, I own it. I am proud of it. I have schemed and lain awake at nights for this. Why should I not love you? Others have loved me without asking my leave. Why should I ask yours? And love came to me without your leave or my own that day on the road when you let me carry your books.’
She let her arms drop from his neck and buried her face in her hands, sobbing now with very genuine tears. Ralph could not yet move away, even though no longer held by the stringent coercion of this girl's arms. He was too grieved, too suddenly and bitterly disappointed to have any fixed thought or resolve. But the good man does not live who can listen unmoved to the despairing catch of the sobbing in a woman's throat. Then on his hands, which he had clasped before him, he felt the steady rain of her tears; his heart went out in a great pity for this wayward girl who was baring her soul to him.
The whole note and accent of her grief was of unmistakable feeling. Jess Kissock had begun in play, but her inflammable nature kindled easily into real passion. For at least that night, by the bridge of the Grannoch water, she believed that her heart was broken.
Ralph put his hand towards her with some unformed idea of sympathy. He murmured vague words of comfort, as he might have done to a wailing child that had hurt itself; but he had no idea how to still the tempestuous grief of a passion-pale woman.
Suddenly Jess Kissock slipped down and clasped him about the knees. Her hair had broken from its snood and streamed a cloud of intense blackness across her shoulders. He could see her only weirdly and vaguely, as one may see another by the red light of a wood ember in the darkness. She seemed like a beautiful, pure angel, lost by some mischance, praying to him out of the hollow pit of the night.
‘I carried your burden for you once, the day I first saw you. Let me carry your burden for you across the world. If you will not love me, let me but serve you. I would slave so hard! See, I am strong—’
She seized his hands, gripping thorn till his fingers clave together with the pressure.
‘See how I love you!’ her hands seemed to say. Then she kissed his hands, wetting them with the downfalling of her tears.
The darkness settled back thicker than before. He could not see the kneeling woman whose touch he felt. He strove to think what he should do, his emotions and his will surging in a troubled maelstrom about his heart.
But just then, from out of the darkness high on the unseen hill above them, there came a cry—a woman's cry of pain, anger, and ultimate danger: ‘Ralph, Ralph, come to me—come!’ it seemed to say to him. Again and again it came, suddenly faltered and was silenced as if smothered—as though a hand had been laid across a mouth that cried and would not be silent.
Ralph sprang clear of Jess Kissock in a moment. He knew the voice. He would have known it had it come to him across the wreck of worlds. It was his love's voice. She was calling to him—Ralph Peden—for help. Without a thought for the woman whose despairing words he had just listened to, he turned and ran, plunging into the thick darkness of the woods, hillward in the direction of the cry. But he had not gone far when another cry was heard—not the cry of a woman this time, but the shorter, shriller, piercing yell of a man at the point of death—some deadly terror at his throat, choking him. Mixed with this came also unearthly, wordless, inhuman howlings, as of a wild beast triumphing. For a dozen seconds these sounds dominated the night. Then upon the hill they seemed to sink into a moaning, and a long, low cry, like the whining of a beaten dog. Lights gleamed about the farm, and Ralph could vaguely see, as he sprang out of the ravine, along which he and Winsome had walked, dark forms flitting about with lanterns. In another moment he was out on the moor, ranging about like a wild, questing hound, seeking the cause of the sudden and hideous outcry.
chapter twenty eight
THAT GIPSY JESS
Saunders took Ralph's letter to Craig Ronald with him earlier that night than usual, as Ralph had desired him. At the high hill gate, standing directing the dogs to gather the cows off the hill for milking, he met Jess.
‘Hae ye ony news, Saunders?’ she asked, running down to the little foot-bridge to meet him. Saunders took it as a compliment; and, indeed, it was done with a kind of elfish grace, which cast a glamour over his eyes. But Jess, who never did anything without a motive, really ran down to be out of sight of Ebie Farrish, who stood looking at her from within the stable door.
‘Here's a letter for ye, Jess,’ Saunders said, importantly, handing her Ralph's letter. ‘He seemed rale agitatit when he brocht it in to me, but I cheered him up by tellin' him how ye wad dreel him wi' the besom-shank gin he waur to gang to the Black Bull i' the forenichts.’
‘Gang to the Black Bull!—what div ye mean, ye gomeril?—Saunders I mean; ye ken weel that Maister Peden wadna gang to ony Black Bull.’
‘Weel, na, I ken that; it was but a mainner o' speakin'; but I can see that he's fair daft ower ye, Jess. I ken the signs o' love as weel as onybody. But hoo's Meg—an' do ye think she likes me ony better?’
‘She was speakin' aboot ye only this mornin',’ answered Jess pleasantly, ‘she said that ye waur a rale solid, sensible man, no a young ne'er-do-weel that naebody kens whaur he'll be by the Martinmas term.’
‘Did Meg say that!’ cried Saunders in high delight, ‘Ye see what it is to be a sensible woman. An' whaur micht she be noo?’
Now Jess knew that Meg was churning the butter, with Jock Forrest to help her, in the milk-house, but it did not suit her to say so. Jess always told the truth when it suited as well as anything else; if not, then it was a pity.
‘Meg's ben the hoose wi' the auld fowk the noo,’ she said, ‘but she'll soon be oot. Juist bide a wee an' bind the kye for me.’
Down the brae face from the green meadowlets that fringed the moor came the long procession of cows. Swinging a little from side to side, they came—black Galloways, and the red and white breed of Ayrshire in single file—the wavering piebald line following the intricacies of the path. Each full-fed, heavy-uddered mother of the herd came marching full matronly with stately tread, blowing her flower-perfumed breath from dewy nostrils. The older and staider animals—Marly, and Dumple, and Flecky—came stolidly homeward, their heads swinging low, absorbed in meditative digestion, and soberly retasting the sweetly succulent grass of the hollows, and the crisper and tastier acidity of the sorrel- mixed grass of the knolls. Behind them came Spotty and Speckly, young and frisky matrons of but a year's standing, who yet knew no better than to run with futile head at Roger, and so encourage that short-haired and short-tempered collie to snap at their heels. Here also, skirmishing on flank and rear, was Winsome's pet sheep, ‘Zachary Macaulay’—so called because he was a living memorial to the emancipation of the blacks. Zachary had been named by John Dusticoat, who was the politician of Cairn Edward, and ‘took in’ a paper. He was an animal of much independence of mind. He utterly refused to company with the sheep of his kind and degree, and would only occasionally condescend to accompany the cows to their hill pasture. Often he could not be induced to quit poking his head into every pot and dish about the farm-yard. On these occasions he would wander uninvited with a little pleading, broken-backed bleat through every room in the house, looking for his mistress to let him suck her thumb or to feed him on oatcake or potato parings.
Tonight he came down in the rear of the procession. Now and then he paused to take a random crop at the herbage, not so much from any desire for wayside refreshment, as to irritate Roger into attacking him. But Roger knew better. There was a certain imperiousness about Zachary such as became an emancipated black. Zachary rejoiced when Speckly or any of the younger or livelier kine approached to push him away from a succulent patch of herbage. Then he would tuck his belligerent head between his legs, and drive fore-and-aft in among the legs of the larger animals, often bringing them down full broadside with the whole of their extensive systems ignominiously shaken up.
By the time that Saunders had the cows safe into the byre, Jess had the letter opened, read, and resealed. She had resolved, for reasons of her own, on this occasion to give the letter to Winsome. Jess ran into the house, and finding Winsome reading in the parlour, gave her the letter in haste.
‘There's a man waiting for the answer,’ she said, ‘but he can easy bide a while if it is not ready.’
Winsome, seeing it was the handwriting she knew so well, that of the note-book and the poem, went into her own room to read her first love-letter. It seemed very natural that he should write to her, and her heart beat within her quickly and strongly as she opened it. As she unfolded it her eye seemed to take in the whole of the writing at once as if it were a picture. She knew, before she had read a word, that ‘beloved’ occurred twice and ‘Winsome dear’ twice, nor had she any fault to find, unless it were that they did not occur oftener.
So, without a moment's hesitation, she sat down and wrote only a line, knowing that it would be all-sufficient. It was her first love-tryst. Yet if it had been her twentieth she could not have been readier.
‘I shall be at the gate of the hill pasture,’ so she wrote, ‘at ten o'clock tonight.’
It was with a very tumultuous heart that she closed this missive, and went out quickly to give it to Jess lest she should repent. A day before, even, it had never entered her mind that by any possibility she could write such a note to a young man whom she had only known so short a time. But then she reflected that certainly Ralph Peden was not like any other young man; so that in this case it was not only right but also commendable. He was so kind and good, and so fond of her grandmother, that she could not let him go so far away without a word. She ought at least to go and tell him that he must never do the like again. But she would forgive him this time, after being severe with him for breaking his word, of course. She sighed when she thought of what it is to be young and foolish. Once the letter in Jess's hands, these doubts and fears came oftener to her. After a few minutes of remorse, she ran out in order to reclaim her letter, but Jess was nowhere to be seen. She was, in fact, at her mother's cottage up on the green, where she was that moment employed in coercing her brother Andra to run on a message for her. ‘When she went out of the kitchen with Winsome's reply in her pocket she made it her first duty to read it. This there was no difficulty in doing, for opening letters was one of Jess's simplest accomplishments. Then Jess knitted her black brows, and thought dark and Pictish thoughts. In a few moments she had made her dispositions. She was not going to let Winsome have Ralph without a struggle. She felt that she had the rude primogeniture of first sight. Besides, since she had no one to scheme for her, she resolved that she would scheme for herself. Shut in her mother's room she achieved a fair imitation of Winsome's letter, guiding herself by the genuine document spread out before her. She had thought of sending only a verbal message, but reflecting that Ralph Peden had probably never seen Winsome's handwriting, she considered it safer, choosing between two dangers, to send a written line.
‘Meet me by the waterside bridge at ten o'clock,’ she wrote. No word more. Then arose the question of messengers. She went out to find Saunders Mowdiewort; she got him standing at the byre door, looking wistfully about for Meg. ‘Saunders,’ she said, ‘you are to take back this answer instantly to the young Master Peden.’
‘Na, na, Jess, what's the hurry? I dinna gang a fit till I hae seen Meg,’ said Saunders doggedly. ‘Your affairs are dootless verra important, but sae are mine. Your lad maun een wait wi' patience till I gang hame, the same as I hae had mony a day to wait. It's for his guid.’
Jess stamped her foot. It was too irritating that her combinations should fail because of a Cuif whom she had thought to rule with a word, and upon whom she had counted without a thought.
She could not say that it was on Winsome's business, though she knew that in that case he would have gone at once on the chance of indirectly pleasuring Meg. She had made him believe that she herself was the object of Ralph Peden's affections. But Jess was not to be beaten, for in less than a quarter of an hour she had overcome the scruples of Andra, and despatched Jock Gordon on another message in another direction. Jess believed that where there is a will there are several ways: the will was her own, but she generally made the way some one else's. Then Jess went into the byre, lifting up her house gown and covering it with the dust- coloured milking overall, in which she attended to Speckly and Crummy. She had done her best—her best, that is, for Jess Kissock—and it was with a conscience void of offence that she set herself to do well her next duty, which happened to be the milking of the cows. She did not mean to milk cows any longer than she could help, but in the meantime she meant to be the best milker in the parish. Moreover, it was quite in accordance with her character that, in her byre flirtations with Ebie Farrish, she should take pleasure in his rough compliments, smacking of the field and the stable. Jess had an appetite for compliments perfectly eclectic and cosmopolitan. Though well aware that she was playing this night with the sharpest of edged tools, till her messengers should return and her combinations should close, Jess was perfectly able and willing to give herself up to the game of conversational give-and-take with Ebie Farrish. She was a girl of few genteel accomplishments, but with her gipsy charm and her frankly pagan nature she was fitted to go far.
Chapter twenty seven
THE OPINIONS OF SAUNDERS MOWDIEWORT UPON BESOMSHANKS.
Ralph Peden kept his promise just twenty-four hours, which under the circumstances was an excellent performance. That evening, on his return to the manse, Manse Bell handed him, with a fine affectation of unconcern, a letter with the Edinburgh post-mark, which had been brought with tenpence to pay, from Cairn Edward. Manse Bell was a smallish, sharp-tongued woman of forty, with her eyes very close together. She was renowned throughout the country for her cooking and her temper, the approved excellence of the one being supposed to make up for the difficult nature of the other.
The letter was from his father. It began with many inquiries as to his progress in the special studies to which he had been devoting himself. Then came many counsels as to avoiding all entanglements with the erroneous views of Socinians, Erastians, and Pelagians. In conclusion, a day was suggested on which it would be convenient for the presbytery of the Marrow kirk to meet in Edinburgh in order to put Ralph through his trials for license. Then it was that Ralph Peden felt a tingling sense of shame. Not only had he to a great extent forgotten to prepare himself for his examinations, which would be no great difficulty to a college scholar of his standing, but unconsciously to himself his mind had slackened its interest in his licensing. The Marrow kirk had receded from him as the land falls back from a ship which puts out to sea, swiftly and silently. He was conscious that he had paid far more attention to his growing volume of poems than he had done to his discourses for license; though indeed of late he had given little attention to either.
He went upstairs and looked vaguely at his books. He found that it was only by an effort that he could at all think himself into the old Ralph, who had shaken his head at Calvin under the broom- bush by the Grannoch Water. Sharp penitence rode hard upon Ralph's conscience. He sat down among his neglected books. From these he did not rise till the morning fully broke. At last he lay down on the bed, after looking long at the ridge of pines which stood sharp up against the morning sky, behind which Craig Ronald lay. Then the underlying pang, which he had been crushing down by the night's work among the Hebrew roots, came triumphantly to the surface. He must leave the manse of Dullarg, and with it that solitary white farmhouse on the braeface, the orchard at the back of it, and the rose-clambered gable from which a dear window looked down the valley of the Grannoch, and up to the heathery brow of the Crae Hill.
So, unrefreshed, yet unconscious of the need of any refreshment, Ralph Peden rose and took his place at the manse table.
‘I saw your candle late yestreen,’ said the minister, pausing to look at the young man over the wooden platter of porridge which formed the frugal and sufficient breakfast of the two.
Porridge for breakfast and porridge for supper are the cure-alls of the true Galloway man. It is not every Scot who stands through all temptation so square in the right way as morning and night to confine himself to these; but he who does so shall have his reward in a rare sanity of judgment and lightness of spirit, and a capacity for work unknown to countrymen of less Spartan habit.
So Ralph answered, looking over his own ‘cogfu' o' brose’ as Manse Bell called them, ‘I was reading the book of Joel for the second time.’
‘Then you have,’ said the minister, ‘finished your studies in the Scripture character of the truly good woman of the Proverbs, with which you were engaged on your first coming here?’
‘I have not quite finished,’ said Ralph, looking a little strangely at the minister.
‘You ought always to finish one subject before you begin another,’ said Mr. Welsh, with a certain slow sententiousness.
By-and-bye Ralph got away from the table, and in the silence of his own room gave himself to a repentant and self-accusing day of study. Remorsefully sad, with many searchings of heart, he questioned whether indeed he were fit for the high office of minister in the kirk of the Marrow; whether he could now accept that narrow creed, and take up alone the burden of these manifold protestings. It was for this that he had been educated; it was for this that he had been given his place at his father's desk since ever he could remember.
Here he had studied in the far-off days of his boyhood strange deep books, the flavour of which only he retained. He had learned his letters out of the Bible—the Old Testament. He had gone through the Psalms from beginning to end before he was six. He remembered that the paraphrases were torn out of all the Bibles in the manse. Indeed, they existed only in a rudimentary form even in the great Bible in the kirk (in which by some oversight a heathen binder had bound them), but Allan Welsh had rectified this by pasting them up, so that no preacher in a moment of demoniac possession might give one out. What would have happened if this had occurred in the Marrow kirk it is perhaps better only guessing. At twelve Ralph was already far on in Latin and Greek, and at thirteen he could read plain narrative Hebrew, and had a Hebrew Bible of his own in which he followed his father, to the admiration of all the congregation.
Prigs of very pure water have sometimes been manufactured by just such means as this.
Sometimes his father would lean over and say, ‘My son, what is the expression for that in the original?’ whereupon Ralph would read the passage. It was between Gilbert Peden and his Maker that sometimes he did this for pride, and not for information; but Ralph was his only son, and was he not training him, as all knew, in order that he might be a missionary apostle of the great truths of the protesting kirk of the Marrow, left to testify lonely and forgotten among the scanty thousands of Scotland, yet carrying indubitably the only pure doctrine as it had been delivered to the saints?
But, in spite of all, the lad's bent was really towards literature. The books of verses which he kept under lock and key were the only things that he had ever concealed from his father. Again, since he had come to man's estate, the articles he had covertly sent to the Edinburgh Magazine were manifest tokens of the bent of his mind. All the more was he conscious of this, that he had truly lived his life before the jealous face of his father's God, though his heart leaned to the milder divinity and the kindlier gospel of One who was the Bearer of Burdens.
Ralph lay long on his bed, on which he had lain down at full length to think out his plans, as his custom was. It did not mean to leave Winsome, this call to Edinburgh. His father would not utterly refuse his consent, though he might urge long delays. And, in any case, Edinburgh was but two days' journey from the Dullarg; two days on the road by the burnsides and over the heather hills was nothing to him. But, for all that, the aching would not be stilled. Hearts are strange, illogical things; they will not be argued with.
Finally, he rose with the heart of him full of the intention of telling Winsome at once. He would write to her and tell her that he must see her immediately. It was necessary for him to acquaint her with what had occurred. So, without further question as to his motive in writing, Ralph rose and wrote a letter to give to Saunders Mowdiewort. The minister's man was always ready to take a letter to Craig Ronald after his day's work was over. His inclinations jumped cheerfully along with the shilling which Ralph—who had not many such—gave him for his trouble. Within a drawer, the only one in his room that would lock, on the top of Ralph's poems lay the white moss-rose and the forget-me-nots which, as a precious and pregnant emblem from his love, Saunders had brought back with him.
As Ralph sat at the window writing his letter to Winsome, he saw over the hedge beneath his window the bent form of Allan Welsh— his great, pallid brow over-dominating his face—walking slowly to and fro along the well-accustomed walk, at one end of which was the little wooden summer house in which was his private oratory. Even now Ralph could see his lips moving in the instancy of his unuttered supplication. His inward communing was so intense that the agony of prayer seemed to shake his frail body. Ralph could see him knit his hands behind his back in a strong tension of nerves. Yet it seemed a right and natural thing for Ralph to be immersed in his own concerns, and to turn away with the light tribute of a sigh to finish his love-letter—for, after all (say they), love is only a refined form of selfishness.
‘Beloved,’ wrote Ralph, ‘among my many promises to you yester even, I did not promise to refrain from writing to you; or if I did, I ask you to put off your displeasure until you have read my letter. I am not, you said, to come to see you. Then will you come to meet me? You know that I would not ask you unless the matter were important. I am at a crossroads, and I cannot tell which way to go. But I am sure that you can tell me, for your word shall be to me as the whisper of a kind angel. Meet me tonight, I beseech you, for ere long I must go very far away, and I have much to say to thee, my beloved! Saunders will bring any message of time or place safely. Believing that you will grant me this request—for it is the first time and may be the last—and with all my heart going out to thee, I am the man who truly loves thee.—RALPH PEDEN.’
It was when Saunders came over from his house by the kirkyard that Ralph left his books and went down to find him. Saunders was in the stable, occupying himself with the mysteries of Birsie's straps and buckles, about which he was as particular as though he were driving a pair of bays every day.
‘An' this is the letter, an' I'm to gie it to the same lass as I gied the last yin till? I'll do that, an' thank ye kindly,’ said Saunders, putting the letter into one pocket and Ralph's shilling into the other; ‘no that I need onything but white silver kind o' buckles friendship. It's worth your while, an' its worth my while —that's the way I look at it.’
Ralph paused a moment. He would have liked to ask what Meg said, and how Winsome looked, and many other things about Saunders's last visit; but the fear of appearing ridiculous even to Saunders withheld him.
The grave-digger went on: ‘It's a strange thing—love—it levels a'. Noo there's me, that has had a wife an' burriet her; I'm juist as keen aboot gettin' anither as if I had never gotten the besom i' the sma' o' my back. Ye wad never get a besom in the sma' o' yer back?’ he said inquiringly.
‘No,’ said Ralph, smiling in spite of himself.
‘Na, of course no; ye havna been mairrit. But bide a wee; she's a fell active bit lass, that o' yours, an' I should say’—here Saunders spoke with the air of a connoisseur—‘I wad say that she micht be verra handy wi' the besom.’
‘You must not speak in that way,’ began Ralph, thinking of Winsome. But, looking at the queer, puckered face of Saunders, he came to the conclusion that it was useless to endeavour to impress any of his own reverence upon him. It was not worth the pains, especially as he was assuredly speaking after his kind.
‘Na, of course no,’ replied Saunders, with a kind of sympathy for youth and inexperience in his tone; ‘when yer young an' gaun coortin' ye dinna think o' thae things. But bide a wee till ye gann on the same errand the second time, and aiblins the third time—I've seen the like, sir—an' a' thae things comes intil yer reckoning, so so speak.’
‘Really,’ said Ralph, ‘I have not looked so far forward.’
Saunders breathed on his buckle and polished it with the tail of his coat, after which he rubbed it on his knee. Then he held it up critically in a better light. Still it did not please him, so he breathed on it once more.
‘'Deed, an' wha could expect it? It's no in youth to think o' thae things—no till it's ower late. Noo, sir, I'll tell ye, whan I was coortin' my first, afore I gat her, I could hae etten her, an' the first week efter Maister Teends mairrit us, I juist danced I was that fond o' her. But in anither month, faith, I thocht that she wad hae etten me, an' afore the year was oot I wussed she had. Aye, aye, sir, it's waur nor a lottery, mairriage—it's a great mystery.’
‘But how is it, then, that you are so anxious to get married again?’ asked Ralph, to whom these conversations with the Cuif were a means of lightening his mind of his own cares.
‘Weel, ye see, Maister Ralph,’ pursued the grave-digger, ‘I'm by inclination a social man, an' the nature o' my avocation, so to speak, is a wee unsocial. Fowk are that curious. Noo, when I gang into the square o' a forenicht, the lads 'll cry oot, 'Dinna be lookin' my gate, Saunders, an' wonnerin' whether I'll need a seven-fit hole, or whether a six-fit yin will pass!' Or maybe the bairns'll cry oot, 'Hae ye a skull i' yer pooch?' The like o' that tells on a man in time, sir.’
‘Without doubt,’ said Ralph; ‘but how does matrimony, for either the first or the second time, cure that?’
‘Weel, sir, ye see, mairriage mak's a man kind o' independent like. Say, for instance, ye hae been a' day at jobs up i' the yaird, an' it's no been what ye micht ca' pleesant crunchin' through green wud an' waur whiles. Noo, we'll say that juist as a precaution, ye ken, ye hae run ower to the Black Bull for a gless or twa at noo's an' nan's’ [now and then].
‘I have run over, Saunders?’ queried Ralph.
‘Oh, it's juist a mainner o' speakin', sir; I was takin' a personal example. Weel, ye gang hame to the wife aboot the gloamin', an' ye open the door, an' ye says, says you, pleesant like, bein' warm aboot the wame,' Guid e'en to ye, guidwife, my dawtie, an' hoos a' thing been gaim wi' ye the day?' D'ye think she needs to luik roon' to ken a' aboot the Black Bull? Na, na, she kens withoot even turnin' her heid. She kenned by yer verra fit as ye cam' up the yaird. She's maybe stirrin' something i' the pat. She turns roon' wi the pat-stick i' her haund. 'I'll dawtie ye, my man!' she says, an' whang, afore ye ken whaur ye are, the pat-stick is acquant wi' the side o' yer heid. 'I'll dawtie ye, rinnin' rakin' to the public-hoose wi' yer hard-earned shillin's. Dawtie!' quo' she; 'faith, the Black Bull's yer dawtie!'‘
‘But how does she know?’ asked Ralph, in the interests of truth and scientific inquiry.
Saunders thought that he was speaking with an eye on the future. He lifted up his finger solemnly: ‘Dinna ye ever think that ye can gang intil a public hoose withoot yer wife kennin'. Na, it's no the smell, as an unmarrit man micht think; and peppermints is a vain thing, also ceenimons. It's juist their faculty—aye, that's what it is—it's a faculty they hae; an' they're a' alike. They ken as weel wi' the back o' their heids till ye, an' their noses fair stuffit wi' the cauld, whether ye hae been makin' a ca' or twa on the road hame on pay-nicht. I ken it's astonishin' to a single man, but ye had better tak' my word for't, it's the case. 'Whaur's that auchteenpence?' Betty used to ask; 'only twal an' sixpence, an' your wages is fourteen shillings—forbye your chance frae mourners for happen the corp up quick'—then ye hummer an' ha', an' try to think on the lee ye made up on the road doon; but it's a gye queery thing that ye canna mind o't. It's an odd thing hoo jooky a lee is whan ye want it in time o' need!’
Ralph looked so interested that Saunders quite felt for him.
‘And what then?’ said he.
‘Then,’ said Saunders, nodding his head, so that it made the assertion of itself without any connection with his body—‘then, say ye, then is juist whaur the besom comes in’—he paused a moment in deep thought—’i' the sma' o' yer back!’ he added, in a low and musing tone, as of one who chews the cud of old and pleasant memories. ‘An' ye may thank a kind Providence gin there's plenty o' heather on the end o't. Keep aye plenty o' heather on the end o' the besom,’ said Saunders; ‘a prudent man aye sees to that. What is't to buy a new besom or twa frae a tinkler body, whan ye see the auld yin gettin' bare? Nocht ava, ye can tak' the auld yin oot to the stable, or lose it some dark nicht on the moor! O aye, a prudent man aye sees to his wife's besom.’ Saunders paused, musing. ‘Ye'll maybe no believe me, but often what mak's a' the hale differ atween a freendly turn up wi' the wife, that kind o' cheers a man up, an' what ye micht ca' an onpleesantness— is juist nae mair nor nae less than whether there's plenty o' heather on his wife's besom.’
Saunders had now finished all his buckles to his satisfaction. He summed up thus the conclusion of his great argument: ‘A besom i' the sma' o' yer back is interestin' an' enleevinin', whan it's new an' bushy; but it's the verra mischief an' a' whan ye get the bare shank on the back o' yer heid—an' mind ye that.’
‘I am very much indebted to you for the advice, Saunders.’
‘Aye, sir,’ said Saunders, ‘it's sound! it's sound! I can vouch for that.’
Ralph went towards the door and looked out. The minister was still walking with his hands behind his back. He did not in the least hear what Saunders had said. He turned again to him. ‘And what do you want another wife for, then, Saunders?’
‘'Deed, Maister Ralph, to tell ye the Guid's truth, it's awfu' deevin' leevin' wi' yin's mither. She's a awfu' woman to talk, though a rale guid mither to me. Forbye, she canna tak' the besom to ye like yer ain wife—the wife o' yer bosom, so to speak—when ye hae been to the Black Bull. It's i' the natur' o' things that a man maun gang there by whiles; but on the ither haund it's richt that he should get a stap ta'en oot o' his bicker when he comes hame, an' some way or ither the best o' mithers haena gotten the richt way o't like a man's ain wife.’
‘And you think that Meg would do it well?’ said Ralph, smiling.
‘Aye, sir, she wad that, though I'm thinkin' that she wad be kindlier wi' the besom-shank than Jess; no that I wad for a moment expect that there wad be ony call for siclike,’ he said, with a look of apology at Ralph, which was entirely lost on that young man, ‘but in case, sir—in case—’
Ralph looked in bewilderment at Saunders, who was indulging in mystic winks and nods.
‘You see, the way o't is this, sir: yin's mither—(an' mind, I'm far frae sayin' a word agin my ain mither—she's a guid yin, for a' her tongue, whilk, ye ken, sir, she canna help ony mair than bein' a woman;) but ye ken, that when ye come hame frae the Black Bull, gin a man has only his mither, she begins to flyte on him, an' cast up to him what his faither, that's i' the grave, wad hae said, an' maybe on the back o' that she begins the greetin'. Noo, that's no comfortable, ava. A man that gangs to the Black Bull disna care a flee's hin' leg what his faither wad hae said. He disna want to be grutten ower; na, what he wants is a guid-gaun tongue, a wullin' airm, an' a heather besom no ower sair worn.’
Ralph nodded in his turn in appreciative comment.
‘Then, on the morrow's morn, when ye rub yer elbow, an' fin' forbye that there's something on yer left shoother-blade that's no on the ither, ye tak' a resolve that ye'll come straught hame the nicht. Then, at e'en, when ye come near the Black Bull, an' see the crony that ye had a glass wi' the nicht afore, ye naturally tak' a bit race by juist to get on the safe side o' yer hame. I'm hearin' aboot new-fangled folk that they ca' 'temperance advocates,' Maister Ralph, but for my pairt gie me a lang-shankit besom, an' a guid-wife's wullin airm!’
These are all the opinions of Saunders Mowdiewort about besom- shanks.
chapter twenty six
SUCH SWEET PERIL
Winsome looked away down the glen, and strove to harden her face into a superhuman indignation.
‘That he should dare—the idea!’
But it so happened that the idea so touched that rare gift of humour, and the picture of herself looking at Ralph Peden solemnly with one eye at a time, in order at once to spare his susceptibilities and give the other a rest, was too much for her. She laughed a peal of rippling merriment that sent all the blackbirds indignant out of their copses at the infringement of their prerogative.
Ralph's humour was slower and a little grimmer than Winsome's, whose sunny nature had blossomed out amid the merry life of the woods and streams. But there was a sternness in both of them as well, that was of the heather and the moss hags. And that would in due time come out. It is now their day of love and bounding life. And there are few people in this world who would not be glad to sit just so at the opening of the flower of love. Indeed, it was hardly necessary to tell one another.
Laughter, say the French (who think that their l'amour is love, and so will never know anything), kills love. But not the kind of laughter that rang in the open dell which peeped like the end of a great green-lined prospect glass upon the glimmering levels of Loch Grannoch; nor yet the kind of love which in alternate currents pulsed to and fro between the two young people who sat so demurely on either side of the great, many-spiked fir-branch.
‘Is not this nice?’ said Winsome, shrugging her shoulders contentedly and swinging her feet.
Their laughter made them better friends than before. The responsive gladness in each other's eyes seemed part of the midsummer stillness of the afternoon. Above, a red squirrel dropped the husks of larch tassels upon them, and peered down upon them with his bright eyes. He was thinking himself of household duties, and had his own sweetheart safe at home, nestling in the bowl of a great beech deep in the bowering wood by the loch.
‘I liked to hear you speak of your father today,’ said Winsome, still swinging her feet girlishly. ‘It must be a great delight to have a father to go to. I never remember father or mother.’
Her eyes were looking straight before her now, and a depth of tender wistfulness in them went to Ralph's heart. He was beginning to hate the branch.
‘My father,’ he said, ‘is often stern to others, but he has never been stern to me—always helpful, full of tenderness and kindness. Perhaps that is because I lost my mother almost before I can remember.’
Winsome's wet eyes, with the lashes curving long over the under side of the dark-blue iris, were turned full on him now with the tenderness of a kindred pity.
‘Do you know I think that your father was once kind to my mother. Grandmother began once to tell me, and then all at once would tell me no more—I think because grandfather was there.’
‘I did not know that my father ever knew your mother,’ answered Ralph.
‘Of course, he would never tell you if he did,’ said the woman of experience, sagely; ‘but grandmother has a portrait in an oval miniature of your father as a young man, and my mother's name is on the back of it.’
‘Her maiden name?’ queried Ralph.
Winsome Charteris nodded. Then she said wistfully: ‘I wish I knew all about it. I think it is very hard that grandmother will not tell me!’
Then, after a silence which a far-off cuckoo filled in with that voice of his which grows slower and fainter as the midsummer heats come on, Winsome said abruptly, ‘Is your father ever hard and—unkind?’
Ralph started to his feet as if hastily to defend his father. There was something in Winsome's eyes that made him sit down again—something shining and tender and kind.
‘My father,’ he said, ‘is very silent and reserved, as I fear I too have been till I came down here,’ (he meant to say, ‘Till I met you, dear,’ but he could not manage it), ‘but he is never hard or unkind, except perhaps on matters connected with the Marrow kirk and its order and discipline. Then he becomes like a stone, and has no pity for himself or any. I remember him once forbidding me to come into the study, and compelling me to keep my own garret- room for a month, for saying that I did not see much difference between the Marrow kirk and the other kirks. But I am sure he could never be unkind or hurtful to any one in the world. But why do you ask, Mistress Winsome?’
‘Because—because—’ she paused, looking down now, the underwells of her sweet eyes brimming to the overflow—‘because something grandfather said once, when he was very ill, made me wonder if your father had ever been unkind to my mother.’
Two great tears overflowed from under the dark lashes and ran down Winsome's cheek. Ralph was on the right side of the branch now, and, strangely enough, Winsome did not seem to notice it. He had a lace-edged handkerchief in his hand which had been his mother's, and all that was loving and chivalrous in his soul was stirred at the sight of a woman's tears. He had never seen them before, and there is nothing so thrilling in the world to a young man. Gently, with a light, firm hand, he touched Winsome's cheek, instinctively murmuring tenderness which no one had ever used to him since that day long ago, when his mother had hung, with the love of a woman who knows that she must give up all, over the cot of a boy whose future she could not foresee.
For a thrilling moment Winsome's golden coronet of curls touched his breast, and, as he told himself after long years, rested willingly there while his heart beat at least ten times. Unfortunately, it did not take long to beat ten times.
One moment more, and without any doubt Ralph would have taken Winsome in his arms. But the girl, with that inevitable instinct which tells a woman when her waist or her lips are in danger— matters upon which no woman is ever taken by surprise, whatever she may pretend—drew quietly back. The time was not yet.
‘Indeed, you must not, you must not think of me. You must go away. You know that there are only pain and danger before us if you come to see me any more.’
‘Indeed, I do not know anything of the kind. I am sure that my father could never be unkind to any creature, and I am certain that he was not to your mother. But what has he to do with us, Winsome?’
Her name sounded so perilously sweet to her, said thus in Ralph's low voice, that once again her eyes met his in that full, steady gaze which tells heart secrets and brings either life-long joys or unending regrets. Nor—as we look—can we tell which?
‘I cannot speak to you now, Ralph,’ she said, ‘but I know that you ought not to come to see me any more. There must be something strange and wicked about me. I feel that there is a cloud over me, Ralph, and I do not want you to come under it.’
At the first mention of his name from the lips of his beloved, Ralph drew very close to her, with that instinctive drawing which he was now experiencing. It was that irresistible first love of a man who has never wasted himself even on the harmless flirtations which are said to be the embassies of love.
But Winsome moved away from him, walking down towards the mouth of the linn, through the thickly wooded glen, and underneath the overarching trees, with their enlacing lattice-work of curving boughs.
‘It is better not,’ she said, almost pleadingly, for her strength was failing her. She almost begged him to be merciful.
‘But you believe that I love you, Winsome?’ he persisted.
Low in her heart of hearts Winsome believed it. Her ear drank in every word. She was silent only because she was thirsty to hear more. But Ralph feared that he had fatally offended her.
‘Are you angry with me, Winsome?’ he said, bending from his masculine height to look under the lilac sunbonnet.
Winsome shook her head. ‘Not angry, Ralph, only sorry to the heart.’
She stopped and turned round to him. She held out a hand, when Ralph took it in both of his. There was in the touch a determination to keep the barriers slight but sure between them. He felt it and understood.
‘Listen, Ralph,’ she said, looking at him with shining eyes, in which another man would have read the love, ‘I want you to understand. There is a fate about those who love me. My mother died long ago; my father I never knew; my grandfather and grandmother are—what you know, because of me; Mr. Welsh, at the Manse, who used to love me and pet me when I was a little girl, now does not speak to me. There is a dark cloud all about me!’ said Winsome sadly, yet bravely and determinedly.
Yet she looked as bright and sunshiny as her own name, as if God had just finished creating her that minute, and had left the Sabbath silence of thanksgiving in her eyes. Ralph Peden may be forgiven if he did not attend much to what she said. As long as Winsome was in the world, he would love her just the same, whatever she said.
‘What the cloud is I cannot tell,’ she went on; ‘but my grandfather once said that it would break on whoever loved me— and—and I do not want that one to be you.’
Ralph, who had kept her hand a willing prisoner, close and warm in his, would have come nearer to her.
He said: ‘Winsome, dear’ (the insidious wretch! he thought that, because she was crying, she would not notice the addition, but she did)— ‘Winsome, dear, if there be a cloud, it is better that it should break over two than over one.’
‘But not over you,’ she said, with a soft accent, which should have been enough, for any one, but foolish Ralph was already fixed on his own next words:
‘If you have few to love you, let me be the one who will love you all the time and altogether. I am not afraid; there will be two of us against the world, dear.’
Winsome faltered. She had not been wooed after this manner before. It was perilously sweet. Little ticking pulses beat in her head. A great yearning came to her to let herself drift up on a sea of love. That love of giving up all, which is the precious privilege, the saving dowry or utter undoing of women, surged in upon her heart.
She drew away her hand, not quickly, but slowly and firmly, and as if she meant it. ‘I have come to a decision—I have made a vow,’ she said. She paused, and looked at Ralph a little defiantly, hoping that he would take the law into his own hands, and forbid the decision and disallow the vow.
But Ralph was not yet enterprising enough, and took her words a little too seriously. He only stood looking at her and waiting, as if her decision were to settle the fate of kingdoms.
Then Winsome emitted the declaration which has been so often made, at which even the more academic divinities are said to smile, ‘I am resolved never to marry!’
An older man would have laughed. He might probably have heard something like this before. But Ralph had no such experience, and he bowed his head as to an invincible fate—for which stupidity Winsome's grandmother would have boxed his ears.
‘But I may still love you, Winsome?’ he said, very quietly and gently.
‘Oh, no, you must not—you must not love me! Indeed, you must not think of me any more. You must go away.’
‘Go away I can and will, if you say so, Winsome; but even you do not believe that I can forget you when I like.’
‘And you will go away?’ said Winsome, looking at him with eyes that would have chained a Stoic philosopher to the spot.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, perjuring his intentions.
‘And you will not try to see me any more—you promise?’ she added, a little spiteful at the readiness with which he gave his word.
So Ralph made a promise. He succeeded in keeping it just twenty- four hours—which was, on the whole, very creditable, considering.
What else he might have promised we cannot tell—certainly anything else asked of him so long as Winsome continued to look at him.
Those who have never made just such promises, or listened to them being made—occupations equally blissful and equally vain—had better pass this chapter by. It is not for the uninitiated. But it is true, nevertheless.
So in silence they walked down to the opening of the glen. As they turned into the broad expanse of glorious sunshine the shadows were beginning to slant towards them. Loch Grannoch was darkening into pearl grey, under the lee of the hill. Down by the high- backed bridge, which sprang at a bound over the narrows of the lane, there was a black patch on the greensward, and the tripod of the gipsy pot could faintly be distinguished.
Ralph, who had resumed Winsome's hand as a right, pointed it out. It is strange how quickly pleasant little fashions of that kind tend to perpetuate themselves!
As Winsome's grandmother would have said, ‘It's no easy turnin' a coo when she gets the gate o' the corn.’
Winsome looked at the green patch and the dark spot upon it. ‘Tell me,’ she said, looking up at him, ‘why you ran away that day?’
Ralph Peden was nothing if not frank. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I thought you were going to take off your stockings!’
Through the melancholy forebodings which Winsome had so recently exhibited there rose the contagious blossom of mirth, that never could be long away even from such a fate-harassed creature as Winsome Charteris considered herself to be. ‘Poor fellow,’ she said, ‘you must indeed have been terribly frightened!’
‘I was,’ said Ralph Peden, with conviction. ‘But I do not think I should feel quite the same about it now!’
They walked silently to the foot of the Craig Ronald loaning, where by mutual consent they paused.
Winsome's hand was still in Ralph's. She had forgotten to take it away. She was, however, still resolved to do her duty.
‘Now you are sure you are not going to think of me any more?’ she asked.
‘Quite sure,’ said Ralph, promptly.
Winsome looked a little disappointed at the readiness of the answer. ‘And you won't try to see me any more?’ she asked, plaintively.
‘Certainly not,’ replied Ralph, who had some new ideas.
Winsome looked still more disappointed. This was not what she had expected.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, ‘because I shall not need to think of you again, for I shall never stop thinking of you; and I shall not try to see you again, because I know I shall. I shall go away, but I shall come back again; and I shall never give you up, though every friend forbid and every cloud in the heavens break!’
The gladness broke into his love's face in spite of all her gallant determination.
‘But remember,’ said Winsome, ‘I am never going to marry. On that point I am quite determined.’
‘You can forbid me marrying you, Winsome dear,’ said Ralph, ‘but you cannot help me loving you.’
Indeed on this occasion and on this point of controversy Winsome did not betray any burning desire to contradict him. She gave him her hand—still with the withholding power in it, however, which told Ralph that his hour was not yet come.
He bowed and kissed it—once, twice, thrice. And to him who had never kissed woman before in the way of love, it was more than many caresses to one more accustomed.
Then she took her way, carrying her hand by her side tingling with consciousness. It seemed as if Ebie Farrish, who was at the watering-stone as she passed, could read what was written upon it as plain as an advertisement. She put it, therefore, into the lilac sunbonnet and so passed by.
Ralph watched her as she glided, a tall and graceful young figure, under the archway of the trees, till he could no longer see her light dress glimmering through the glades of the scattered oaks.
chapter twenty five
‘Andra is completely spoiled,’ exclaimed Winsome; ‘he is a clever boy, and I fear we have given him too much of his own will. Only Jess can manage him.’
Winsome felt the reference to be somewhat unfortunate. It was, of course, no matter to her whether a servant lass put a flower in Ralph Peden's coat; though, even as she said it, she owned to herself that Jess was different from other servant maids, both by nature and that quickness of tongue which she had learned when abroad.
Still, the piquant resentment Winsome felt, gave just that touch, of waywardness and caprice which was needed to make her altogether charming to Ralph, whose acquaintance with women had been chiefly with those of his father's flock, who buzzed about him everywhere in a ferment of admiration.
‘Your feet are wet,’ said Winsome, with charming anxiety.
Andra was assuredly now far over the moor. They had rounded the jutting point of rock which shut in the linn, and were now walking slowly along the burnside, with the misty sunlight shining upon them, with a glistering and suffused green of fresh leaf sap in its glow. So down that glen many lovers had walked before.
Ralph's heart beat at the tone of Winsome's inquiry. He hastened to assure her that, as a matter of personal liking, he rather preferred to go with his feet wet in the summer season.
‘Do you know,’ said Winsome, confidingly, ‘that if I dared I would run barefoot over the grass even yet. I remember to this day the happiness of taking off my stockings when I came home from the Keswick school, and racing over the fresh grass to feel the daisies underfoot. I could do it yet.’
‘Well, let us,’ said Ralph Peden, the student in divinity, daringly.
Winsome did not even glance up. Of course, she could not have heard, or she would have been angry at the preposterous suggestion. She thought awhile, and then said: ‘I think that, more than anything in the world, I love to sit by a waterside and make stories and sing songs to the rustle of the leaves as the wind sifts among them, and dream dreams all by myself.’
Her eyes became very thoughtful. She seemed to be on the eve of dreaming a dream now.
Ralph felt he must go away. He was trespassing on the pleasaunce of an angel.
‘What do you like most? What would you like best to do in all the world?’ she asked him.
‘To sit with you by the waterside and watch you dream,’ said Ralph, whose education was proceeding by leaps and bounds.
Winsome risked a glance at him, though well aware that it was dangerous.
‘You are easily satisfied,’ she said; ‘then let us do it now.’
So Ralph and Winsome sat down like boy and girl on the fallen trunk of a fir-tree, which lay across the water, and swung their feet to the rhythm of the wimpling burn beneath.
‘I think you had better sit at the far side of that branch,’ said Winsome, suspiciously, as Ralph, compelled by the exigencies of the position, settled himself precariously near to her section of the tree-trunk.
‘What is the matter with this?’ asked Ralph, with an innocent look. Now no one counterfeits innocence worse than a really innocent man who attempts to be more innocent than he is.
So Winsome looked at him with reproach in her eyes, and slowly she shook her head. ‘It might do very well for Jess Kissock, but for me it will balance better if you sit on the other side of the branch. We can talk just as well.’
Ralph had thought no more of Jess Kissock and her flower from the moment he had seen Winsome. Indeed, the posy had dropped unregarded from his button-hole while he was gathering up the trout. There it had lain till Winsome, who had seen it fall, accidentally set her foot on it and stamped it into the grass. This indicates, like a hand on a dial, the stage of her prepossession. A day before she had nothing regarded a flower given to Ralph Peden; and in a little while, when the long curve has at last been turned, she will not regard it, though a hundred women give flowers to the beloved.
‘I told you I should come,’ said Ralph, beginning the personal tale which always waits at the door, whatever lovers may say when they first meet. Winsome was meditating a conversation about the scenery of the dell. She needed also some botanical information which should aid her in the selection of plants for a herbarium. But on this occasion Ralph was too quick for her. ‘I told you I should come,’ said Ralph boldly, ‘and so you see I am here,’ he concluded, rather lamely.
‘To see my grandmother,’ said Winsome, with a touch of archness in her tone or in her look—Ralph could not tell which, though he eyed her closely. He wished for the first time that the dark-brown eyelashes which fringed her lids were not so long. He fancied that, if he could only have seen the look in the eyes hidden underneath, he might have risked changing to the other side of the unkindly frontier of fir-bough which marked him off from the land of promise on the farther side.
But he could not see, and in a moment the chances were past.
‘Not only to see your grandmother, who has been very kind to me, but also to see you, who have not been at all kind to me,’ answered Ralph.
‘And pray, Master Ralph Peden, how have I not been kind to you?’ said Winsome with dignity, giving him the full benefit of a pair of apparently reproachful eyes across the fir-branch.
Now Ralph had strange impulses, and, like Winsome, certainly did not talk by rule.
‘I do wish,’ he said complainingly, with his head a little to one side, ‘that you would only look at me with one eye at a time. Two like that are too much for a man.’
This is that same Ralph Peden whose opinions on woman were written in a lost note-book which at this present moment is—we shall not say where.
Chapter twenty four
As Ralph Peden went through the flower-decked parlour in which he had met Jess Kissock an hour before, he heard the clang of controversy, or perhaps it is more correct to say, he heard the voice of Meg Kissock raised to its extreme pitch of command.
‘Certes, my lass, but ye'll no hoodwink me; ye hae dune no yae thing this hale mornin' but wander athort the hoose wi' that basket o' flooers. Come you an' gie us a hand wi' the kirn this meenit! Ye dinna gang a step oot o' the hoose the day!’
Ralph did not think of it particularly at the time, but it was probably owing to this utilitarian occupation that he did not again see the attractive Jess on his way out. For, with all her cleverness, Jess was afraid of Meg.
Ralph passed through the yard to the gate which led to the hill. He was wonderfully comforted in heart, and though Winsome had been alternatively cold and kind, he was too new in the ways of girls to be uplifted on that account, as a more experienced man might have been. Still, the interview with the old people had done him good.
As he was crossing the brook which flows partly over and partly under the road at the horse watering-place, he looked down into the dell among the tangles of birch and the thick viscous foliage of the green-berried elder. There he caught the flash of a light dress, and as he climbed the opposite grassy bank on his way to the village, he saw immediately beneath him the maiden of his dreams and his love-verses. Now she leaped merrily from stone to stone; now she bent stealthily over till her palms came together in the water; now she paused to dash her hair back from her flushed face. And all the time the water glimmered and sparkled about her feet. With her was Andra Kissock, a bare-legged, bonnetless squire of dames. Sometimes he pursued the wily burn trout with relentless ferocity and the silent intentness of a sleuthhound. Often, however, he would pause and with his finger indicate some favourite stone to Winsome. Then the young lady, utterly forgetful of all else and with tremulous eagerness, delicately circumvented the red-spotted beauties.
Once throwing her head back to clear the tumbling avalanches of her hair, she chanced to see Ralph standing silent above. For a moment Winsome was annoyed. She had gone to the hill brook with Andra so that she might not need to speak further with Ralph Peden, and here he had followed her. But it did not need a second look to show her that he was infinitely more embarrassed than she. This is the thing of all others which is fitted to make a woman calm and collected. It allows her to take the measure of her opportunity and assures her of her superiority. So, with a gay and quipsome wave of the hand, in which Ralph was conscious of some faint resemblance to her grandmother, she called to him.
‘Come down and help us to catch some trout for supper.’
Ralph descended, digging his heels determinedly into the steep bank, till he found himself in the bed of the streamlet. Then he looked at Winsome for an explanation. This was something he had not practised in the water of Leith. Andra Kissock glared at him with a terrible countenance, in which contempt was supposed to blend with a sullen ferocity characteristic of the noble savage. The effect was slightly marred by a black streak of mud which was drawn from the angle of his mouth to the roots of his hair. Ralph thought from his expression that trout-fishing of this kind did not agree with him, and proposed to help Winsome instead of Andra.
This proposal had the effect of drawing a melodramatic ‘Ha! ha!’ from that youth, ludicrously out of keeping with his usual demeanour. Once he had seen a play-acting show unbeknown to his mother, when Jess had taken him to Cairn Edward September fair.
So ‘Ha! ha!’ he said with the look of smothered desperation which to the unprejudiced observer suggested a pain in his inside. ‘You guddle troot!’ he cried scornfully, ‘I wad admire to see ye! Ye wad only fyle yer shune an' yer braw breeks!’
Ralph glanced at the striped underskirt over which Winsome had looped her dress. It struck him with astonishment to note how she had managed to keep it clean and dry, when Andra was apparently wet to the neck.
‘I do not know that I shall be of any use,’ he said meekly, ‘but I shall try.’
Winsome was standing poised on a stone, bending like a lithe maid, her hands in the clear water. There had been a swift and noiseless rush underneath the stone; a few grains of sand rose up where the white under part of the trout had touched it as it glided beneath. Slowly and imperceptibly Winsome's hand worked its way beneath the stone. With the fingers of one hand she made that slight swirl of the water which is supposed by expert ‘guddlers’ to fascinate the trout, and to render them incapable of resisting the beckoning fingers. Andra watched breathlessly from the bank above. Ralph came nearer to see the issue. The long, slender fingers, shining mellow in the peaty water, were just closing, when the stone on which Ralph was standing precariously toppled a little and fell over into the burn with a splash. The trout darted out and in a moment was down stream into the biggest pool for miles.
Winsome rose with a flush of disappointment, and looked very reproachfully towards the culprit. Ralph, who had followed the stone, stood up to his knees in the water, looking the picture of crestfallen humility.
Overhead on the bank Andra danced madly like an imp. He would not have dared to speak to Ralph on any other occasion, but guddling, like curling, loosens the tongue. He who fails or causes the failures of others is certain to hear very plainly of it from those who accompany him to this very dramatic kind of fishing.
‘O' a' the stupid asses!’ cried that young man. ‘Was there ever sic a beauty?—a pund wecht gin it was an ounce!—an' to fa' aff a stane like a six-months' wean!’
His effective condemnation made Winsome laugh. Ralph laughed along with her, which very much increased the anger of Andra, who turned away in silent indignation. It was hard to think, just when he had got the ‘prairie flower’ of Craig Ronald (for whom he cherished a romantic attachment of the most desperate and picturesque kind) away from the house for a whole long afternoon at the fishing, that this great grown-up lout should come this way and spoil all his sport. Andra was moved to the extremity of scorn.
‘Hey, mon!’ he called to Ralph, who was standing in the water's edge with Winsome on a miniature bay of shining sand, looking down on the limpid lapse of the clear moss-tinted water slipping over its sand and pebbles—‘hey, mon!’ he cried.
‘Well, Andra, what is it?’ asked Winsome Charteris, looking up after a moment. She had been busy thinking.
‘Tell that chap frae Enbro',’ said Andra, collecting all his spleen into one tremendous and annihilating phrase—‘him that tummilt aff the stane—that there's a feck o' paddocks [a good many frogs] up there i' the bog. He micht come up here an' guddle for paddocks. It wad be safer for the like o' him!’ The ironical method is the favourite mode or vehicle of humour among the common orders in Galloway. Andra was a master in it.
‘Andra,’ said Winsome warmly, ‘you must not—’
‘Please let him say whatever he likes. My awkwardness deserves it all,’ said Ralph, with becoming meekness.
‘I think you had better go home now,’ said Winsome; ‘it will soon be time for you to bring the kye home.’
‘Hae ye aneuch troots for the mistress's denner?’ said Andra, who knew very well how many there were.
‘There are the four that you got, and the one I got beneath the bank, Andra,’ answered Winsome.
‘Nane o' them half the size o' the yin that he fleyed frae ablow the big stane,’ said Andra Kissock, indicating the culprit once more with the stubby great toe of his left foot. It would have done Ralph too much honour to have pointed with his hand. Besides, it was a way that Andrew had at all times. He indicated persons and things with that part of him which was most convenient at the time. He would point with his elbow stuck sideways at an acute angle in a manner that was distinctly libellous. He would do it menacingly with his head, and the indication contemptuous of his left knee was a triumph. But the finest and most conclusive use of all was his great toe as an index-finger of scorn. It stuck out apart from all the others, red and uncompromising, a conclusive affidavit of evil conduct.
‘It's near kye-time,’ again said Winsome, while Ralph yearned with a great yearning for the boy to betake himself over the moor. But Andra had no such intention.
‘I'se no gaun a fit till I hae showed ye baith what it is to guddle. For ye mauna gang awa' to Embro’ (elbow contemptuous to the north, where Andra supposed Edinburgh to lie immediately on the other side of the double-breasted swell of blue Cairnsmuir of Carsphairn), ‘an' think that howkin' wi' a lassie to help ye in among the gravel is guddlin'. You see here!’ cried Andra, and before either Winsome or Ralph could say a word, he had stripped himself to his very brief breeches and ragged shirt, and was wading into the deepest part of the pool beneath the water-fall.
Here he scurried and scuttled for all the world like a dipper, with his breast showing white like that of the bird, as he walked along the bottom of the pool. Most of the time his head was beneath the water, as well as all the rest of his body. His arms bored their way round the intricacies of the boulders at the bottom. His brown and freckled hands pursued the trouts beneath the banks. Sometimes he would have one in each hand at the same time.
When he caught them he had a careless and reckless way of throwing them up on the bank without looking where he was throwing. The first one he threw in this way took effect on the cheek of Ralph Peden, to his exceeding astonishment.
Winsome again cried ‘Andra!’ warningly, but Andra was far too busy to listen; besides, it is not easy to hear with one's head under water and the frightened trout flashing in lightning wimples athwart the pool.
But for all that, the fisherman's senses were acute, even under the water; for as Winsome and Ralph were not very energetic in catching the lively speckled beauties which found themselves so unexpectedly frisking upon the green grass, one or two of them (putting apparently their tails into their mouths, and letting go, as with the release of a steel spring) turned a splashing somersault into the pool. Andra did not seem to notice them as they fell, but in a little while he looked up with a trout in his hand, the peat-water running in bucketfuls from his hair and shirt, his face full of indignation.
‘Ye're lettin' them back again!’ he exclaimed, looking fiercely at the trout in his hand. ‘This is the second time I hae catched this yin wi' the wart on its tail!’ he said. ‘D'ye think I'm catchin' them for fun, or to gie them a change o' air for their healths, like fine fowk that come frae Embro'!’
‘Andra, I will not allow—’ Winsome began, who felt that on the ground of Craig Ronald a guest of her grandmother's should be respected.
But before she had got further Andra was again under the water, and again the trout began to rain out, taking occasional local effect upon both of them.
Finally Andra looked up with an air of triumph. ‘It tak's ye a' yer time to grup them on the dry land, I'm thinkin',’ said he with some fine scorn; ‘ye had better try the paddocks. It's safer.’ So, shaking himself like a water-dog, he climbed up on the grass, where he collected the fish into a large fishing basket which Winsome had brought. He looked them over and said, as he handled one of them:
‘Oh, ye're there, are ye? I kenned I wad get ye some day, impidence. Ye hae nae business i' this pool ony way. Ye belang half a mile faurer up, my lad; ye'll bite aff nae mair o' my heuks. There maun be three o' them i' his guts the noo—’
Here Winsome looked a meaning look at him, upon which Andra said:
‘I'm juist gaun. Ye needna tell me that it's kye-time. See you an' be hame to tak' in yer grannie's tea. Ye're mair likely to be ahint yer time than me!’
Haying sped this Parthian shaft, Andra betook himself over the moor with his backful of spoil.
Chapter twenty three
CONCERNING JOHN BAIRDIESON
‘Guid e'en to ye, Maister Ralph,’ said the gay old lady within, as soon as she caught sight of Ralph. ‘Keep up yer heid, man, an' walk like a Gilchrist. Ye look as dowie as a yow that has lost her lammie.’
Walter Skirving from his arm-chair gave this time no look of recognition. He yielded his hand to Ralph, who raised it clay- chill and heavy even in the act to shake. When he let it drop, the old man held up his palm and looked at it.
‘Hae ye gotten aneuch guid Gallawa' lear to learn ye no to rin awa frae a bonny lass yet, Maister Ralph?’ said the old lady briskly. She had not many jokes save with Winsome and Meg, and she rode one hard when she came by it.
But no reply was needed.
‘Aye, aye, weelna,’ meditated the old lady, leaning back and folding her hands like a mediaeval saint of worldly tendencies, ‘tell me aboot your faither.’ ‘He is very robust and strong in health of body,’ said Ralph.
‘Ye leeve in Edinbra'?’ said the old lady, with a rising inflection of inquiry.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, ‘we live in James's Court. My father likes to be among his people.’
‘Faith na, a hantle o' braw folk hae leeved in James's Court in their time. I mind o' the Leddy Partan an' Mistress Girnigo, the king's jeweller's wife haein' a fair even-doon fecht a' aboot wha was to hae the pick o' the hooses on the stair.—Winifred, ma lassie, come here an' sit doon! Dinna gang flichterin' in an' oot, but bide still an' listen to what Maister Peden has to tell us aboot his farther.’
Winsome came somewhat slowly and reluctantly towards the side of her grandmother's chair. There she sat holding her hand, and looking across the room towards the window where, motionless and abstracted, Walter Skirving, who was once so bold and strong, dreamed his life away.
‘I hardly know what to tell you first,’ said Ralph, hesitatingly.
‘Hoot, tell me gin your faither and you bide thegither withoot ony woman body, did I no hear that yince; is that the case na?’ demanded the lady of Craig Ronald with astonishing directness.
‘It is true enough,’ said Ralph, smiling, ‘but then we have with us my father's old Minister's Man, John Bairdieson. John has us both in hands and keeps us under fine. He was once a sailor, and cook on a vessel in his wild days; but when he was converted by falling from the top of a main yard into a dock (as he tells himself), he took the faith in a somewhat extreme form. But that does not affect his cooking. He is as good as a woman in a house.’
‘An' that's a lee,’ said the old lady. ‘The best man's no as guid as the warst woman in a hoose!’
Winsome did not appear to be listening. Of what interest could such things be to her?
Her grandmother was by no means satisfied with Ralph's report. ‘But that's nae Christian way for folk to leeve, withoot a woman o' ony kind i' the hoose—it's hardly human!’
‘But I can assure you, Mistress Skirving, that, in spite of what you say, John Bairdieson does very well for us. He is, however, terribly jealous of women coming about. He does not allow one of them within the doors. He regards them fixedly through the keyhole before opening, and when he does open, his usual greeting to them is, 'Noo get yer message dune an' be gaun!'‘
The lady of Craig Ronald laughed a hearty laugh.
‘Gin I cam' to veesit ye I wad learn him mainners! But what does he do,’ she continued, ‘when some of the dames of good standing in the congregation call on your faither? Does he treat them in this cavalier way?’
‘In that case,’ said Ralph, ‘John listens at my father's door to hear if he is stirring. If there be no sign, John says, 'The minister's no in, mem, an' I could not say for certain when he wull be!' Once my father came out and caught him in the act, and when he charged John with telling a deliberate lie to a lady, John replied, 'A'weel, it'll tak' a lang while afore we mak' up for the aipple!'‘
It is believed that John Bairdieson here refers to Eve's fatal gift to Adam.
‘John Bairdieson is an ungallant man. It'll be from him that ye learned to rin awa',’ retorted the old lady.
‘Grandmother,’ interrupted Winsome, who had suffered quite enough from this, ‘Master Peden has come to see you, and to ask how you find yourself today.’
‘Aye, aye, belike, belike—but Maister Ralph Peden has the power o' his tongue, an' gin that be his errand he can say as muckle for himsel'. Young fowk are whiles rale offeecious!’ she said, turning to Ralph with the air of an appeal to an equal from the unaccountabilities of a child.
Winsome lifted some stray flowers that Jess Kissock had dropped when she sped out of the room, and threw them out of the window with an air of disdain. This to some extent relieved her, and she felt better. It surprised Ralph, however, who, being wholly innocent and unembarrassed by the recent occurrence, wondered vaguely why she did it.
‘Noo tell me mair aboot your faither,’ continued Mistress Skirving. ‘I canna mak' oot whaur the Marrow pairt o' ye comes in —I suppose when ye tak' to rinnin' awa'.’
‘Grandmammy, your pillows are not comfortable; let me sort them for you.’
Winsome rose and touched the old lady's surroundings in a manner that to Ralph was suggestive of angels turning over the white- bosomed clouds. Then Ralph looked at his pleasant querist to find out if he were expected to go on. The old lady nodded to him with an affectionate look.
‘Well,’ said Ralph, ‘my father is like nobody else. I have missed my mother, of course, but my father has been like a mother for tenderness to me.’
‘Yer grandfaither, auld Ralph Gilchrist, was sore missed. There was thanksgiving in the parish for three days after he died!’ said the old lady by way of an anticlimax.
Winsome looked very much as if she wished to say something, which brought down her grandmother's wrath upon her.
‘Noo, lassie, is't you or me that's haein' a veesit frae this young man? Ye telled me juist the noo that he had come to see me. Then juist let us caa' oor cracks, an' say oor says in peace.’
Thus admonished, Winsome was silent. But for the first time she looked at Ralph with a smile that had half an understanding in it, which made that yonng man's heart leap. He answered quite at random for the next few moments.
‘About my father—yes, he always takes up the Bibles when John Bairdieson preaches.’
‘What!’ said the old lady.
‘I mean, John Bairdieson takes up the Bibles for him when he preaches, and as he shuts the door, John says over the railing in a whisper,'Noo, dinna be losin' the Psalms, as ye did this day three weeks'; or perhaps,'Be canny on this side o' the poopit; the hinge is juist pitten on wi' putty;' whiles John will walk half-way down the kirk, and then turn to see if my father has sat quietly down according to instructions. This John has always done since the day when some inward communing overcame my father before he began his sermon, and he stood up in the pulpit without saying a word till the people thought that he was in direct communion with the Almighty.’
‘There was nane o' thae fine abstractions aboot your grandfaither, Ralph Gilchrist—na, whiles he was taen sae that he couldna speak he was that mad, an' aye he gat redder an' redder i' the face, till yince he gat vent, and then the ill words ran frae him like the Skyreburn in spate.’
‘What else did John Bairdieson say to yer faither?’ asked Winsome, for the first time that day speaking humanly to Ralph.
That young man looked gratefully at her, as if she had suddenly dowered him with a fortune. Then he paused to try (because he was very young and foolish) to account for the unaccountability of womankind.
He endeavoured to recollect what it was that he had said and what John Bairdieson had said, but with indifferent success. He could not remember what he was talking about.
‘John Bairdieson said—John Bairdieson said—It has clean gone out of my mind what John Bairdieson said,’ replied Ralph with much shamefacedness.
The old lady looked at him approvingly. ‘Ye're no a Whig. There's guid bluid in ye,’ she said, irrelevantly.
‘Yes, I do remember now,’ broke in Ralph eagerly. ‘I remember what John Bairdieson said. 'Sit doon, minister,' he said, 'gin yer ready to flee up to the blue bauks';’ ‘'there's a heap o' folk in this congregation that's no juist sae ready yet.'’
Ralph saw that Winsome and her grandmother were both genuinely interested in his father.
‘Ye maun mind that I yince kenned yer faither as weel as e'er I kenned a son o' mine, though it's mony an' mony a year sin' he was i' this hoose.’ Winsome looked curiously at her grandmother. ‘Aye, lassie,’ she said, ‘ye may look an' look, but the faither o' him there cam as near to bein' your ain faither—’
Walter Skirving, swathed in his chair, turned his solemn and awful face from the window, as though called back to life by his wife's words. ‘Silence, woman!’ he thundered.
But Mistress Skirving did not look in the least put out; only she was discreetly silent for a minute or two after her husband had spoken, as was her wont, and then she proceeded:
‘Aye, brawly I kenned Gilbert Peden, when he used to come in at that door, wi' his black curls ower his broo as crisp an' bonny as his son's the day.’
Winsome looked at the door with an air of interest. ‘Did he come to see you, grandmammy?’ she asked.
‘Aye, aye, what else?—juist as muckle as this young man here comes to see me. I had the word o' baith o' them for't. Ralph Peden says that he comes to see me, an' sae did the faither o' him—’
Again Mistress Skirving paused, for she was aware that her husband had turned on her one of his silent looks.
‘Drive on aboot yer faither an' John Rorrison,’ she said; ‘it's verra entertainin'.’
‘Bairdieson,’ said Winsome, correctingly.
Ralph, now reassured that he was interesting Winsome as well, went on more briskly. Winsome had slipped down beside her grandmother, and had laid her arm across her grandmother's knees till the full curve of her breast touched the spare outlines of the elder woman. Ralph wondered if Winsome would ever in the years to come be like her grandmother. He thought that he could love her a thousand times more then.
‘My father,’ said Ralph, ‘is a man much beloved by his congregation, for he is a very father to them in all their troubles; but they give him a kind of adoration in return that would not be good for any other kind of man except my father. They think him no less than infallible. 'Dinna mak' a god o' yer minister,' he tells them, but they do it all the same.’
Winsome looked as if she did not wonder.
‘When I kenned yer faither,’ said the old dame, ‘he wad hae been nocht the waur o' a pickle mair o' the auld Adam in him. It's a rale usefu' commodity in this life—’
‘Why, grandmother—’ began Winsome.
‘Noo, lassie, wull ye haud yer tongue? I'm sair deeved wi' the din o' ye! Is there ony yae thing that a body may say withoot bein' interruptit? Gin it's no you wi' yer 'Grandmither!' like a cheepin' mavis, it's him ower by lookin' as if ye had dung doon the Bible an' selled yersel' to Sawtan. I never was in sic a hoose. A body canna get their tongue rinnin' easy an' comfortable like, but it's 'Woman, silence!' in a voice as graund an' awfu' as 'The Lord said unto Moses'—or else you wi' yer Englishy peepin' tongue, 'Gran'mither!' as terrible shockit like as if a body were gaun intil the kirk on Sabbath wi' their stockin's doon aboot their ankles!’
The little outburst seemed mightily to relieve the old lady. Neither of the guilty persons made any signs, save that Winsome extended her elbow across her grandmother's knee, and poised a dimpled chin on her hand, smiling as placidly and contentedly as if her relative's words had been an outburst of admiration. The old woman looked sternly at her for a moment. Then she relented, and her hand stole among the girl's clustering curls. The little burst of temper gave way to a semi-humorous look of feigned sternness.
‘Ye're a thankless madam,’ she said, shaking her white-capped head; ‘maybe ye think that the fifth commandment says nocht aboot grandmithers; but ye'll be tamed some day, my woman. Mony's the gamesome an' hellicat lassie that I hae seen brocht to hersel', an' her wings clippit like a sea-gull's i' the yaird, tethered by the fit wi' a family o' ten or a dizzen—’
Winsome rose and marched out of the room with all the dignity of offended youth at the suggestion. The old lady laughed a hearty laugh, in which, however, Ralph did not join.
‘Sae fine an' Englishy the ways o' folk noo,’ she went on; ‘ye mauna say this, ye mauna mention that; dear sirse me, I canna mind them a'. I'm ower auld a Pussy Bawdrons to learn new tricks o' sayin' 'miauw' to the kittlins. But for a' that an' a' that, I haena noticed that the young folk are mair particular aboot what they do nor they waur fifty years since. Na, but they're that nice they manna say this and they canna hear that.’
The old lady had got so far when by the sound of retreating footsteps she judged that Winsome was out of hearing. Instantly she changed her tone.
‘But, young man,’ she said, shaking her finger at him as if she expected a contradiction, ‘mind you, there's no a lass i' twunty parishes like this lassie o' mine. An' dinna think that me an' my guidman dinna ken brawly what's bringin' ye to Craig Ronald. Noo, it's richt an' better nor richt—for ye're yer faither's son, an' we baith wuss ye weel. But mind you that there's sorrow comin' to us a'. Him an' me here has had oor sorrows i' the past, deep buried for mair nor twenty year.’
‘I thank you with all my heart,’ said Ralph, earnestly. ‘I need not tell you, after what I have said, that I would lay my life down as a very little thing to pleasure Winsome Charteris. I love her as I never thought that woman could be loved, and I am not the kind to change.’
‘The faither o' ye didna change, though his faither garred him mairry a Gilchrist an' a guid bit lass she was. But for a' that he didna change. Na, weel do I ken that he didna change.’
‘But,’ continued Ralph, ‘I have no reason in the world to imagine that Winsome thinks a thought about me. On the contrary, I have some reason to fear that she dislikes my person; and I would not be troublesome to her—’
‘Hoot toot! laddie, dinna let the Whig bluid mak' a pulin' bairn o' ye. Surely ye dinna expect a lass o' speerit to jump at the thocht o' ye, or drap intil yer moo' like a black-ripe cherry aff a tree i' the orchard. Gae wa' wi' ye, man! what does a blithe young man o' mettle want wi' encouragement—encouragement, fie!’
‘Perhaps you can tell me—’ faltered Ralph. ‘I thought—’
‘Na, na, I can tell ye naething; ye maun juist find oot for yersel', as a young man should. Only this I wull say, it's only a cauldrife Whigamore that wad tak' 'No' for an answer. Mind ye that gin the forbears o' the daddy o' ye was on the wrang side o' Bothwell Brig that day—an' guid Westland bluid they spilt, nae doot, Whigs though they waur—there's that in ye that rode doon the West Port wi' Clavers, an' cried:
'Up wi' the bonnets o' bonny Dundee!'‘
‘I know,’ said Ralph with some of the stiff sententiousness which he had not yet got rid of, ‘that I am not worthy of your granddaughter in any respect—’
‘My certes, no,’ said the sharp-witted dame, ‘for ye're a man, an' it's a guid blessin' that you men dinna get your deserts, or it wad be a puir lookoot for the next generation, young man. Gae wa' wi' ye, man; mind ye, I'll no' say a word in yer favour, but raither the ither way—whilk,’ smiled Mistress Skirving in the deep still way that she sometimes had in the midst of her liveliness, ‘whilk will maybe do ye mair guid. But I'm speakin' for my guid-man when I say that ye hae oor best guid-wull. We think that ye are a true man, as yer faither was, though sorely he was used by this hoose. It wad maybes be some amends,’ she added, as if to herself.
Then the dear old lady touched her eyes with a fine handkerchief which she took out of a little black reticule basket on the table by her side.
As Ralph rose reverently and kissed her hand before retiring, Walter Skirving motioned him near his chair. Then he drew him downward till Ralph was bending on one knee. He laid a nerveless heavy hand on the young man's head, and looked for a minute—which seemed years to Ralph—very fixedly on his eyes. Then dropping his hand and turning to the window, he drew a long, heavy breath.
Ralph Peden rose and went out.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.