chapter thirty three
JOCK GORDON TAKES A HAND
Whatever is too precious, too tender, too good, too evil, too shameful, too beautiful for the day, happens in the night. Night is the bath of life, the anodyne of heartaches, the silencer of passions, the breeder of them too, the teacher of those who would learn, the cloak that shuts a man in with his own soul. The seeds of great deeds and great crimes are alike sown in the night. The good Samaritan doeth his good by stealth; the wicked one cometh and soweth his tares among the wheat. The lover and the lustful person, the thief and the thinker, the preacher and the poacher, are abroad in the night. In factories and mills, beside the ceaseless whirl of machinery, stand men to whom day is night and night day. In cities the guardians of the midnight go hither and thither with measured step under the drizzling rain. No man cares that they are lonely and cold. Yet, nevertheless, both light and darkness, night and day, are but the accidents of a little time. It is twilight—the twilight of the morning and of the gods—that is the true normal of the universe. Night is but the shadow of the earth, light the nearness of the central sun. But when the soul of man goeth its way beyond the confines of the little multiplied circles of the system of the sun, it passes at once into the dim twilight of space, where for myriads of myriad miles there is only the grey of the earliest God's gloaming, which existed just so or ever the world was, and shall be when the world is not. Light and dark, day and night, are but as the lights of a station at which the train does not stop. They whisk past, gleaming bright but for a moment, and the world which came out of great twilight plunges again into it, perhaps to be remade and reillumined on some eternal morning.
It is good for man, then, to be oftentimes abroad in the early twilight of the morning. It is primeval-instinct with possibilities of thought and action. Then, if at all, he will get a glimpse into his soul that may hap to startle him. Judgment and the face of God justly angry seem more likely and actual things than they do in the city when the pavements are thronged and at every turning some one is ready for good or evil to hail you ‘fellow.’
So Ralph Peden stepped out into the night, the sense of injustice quick upon him. He had no plans, but only the quick resentments of youth, and the resolve to stay no longer in a house where he was an unwelcome guest. He felt that he had been offered the choice between his career and unfaithfulness to the girl who had trusted him. This was not quite so; but, with the characteristic one- sidedness of youth, that was the way that he put the case to himself.
It was the water-shed of day and night when Ralph set out from the Dullarg manse. He had had no supper, but he was not hungry. Naturally his feet carried him in the direction of the bridge, whither he had gone on the previous evening and where amid an eager press of thoughts he had waited and watched for his love. When he got there he sat down on the parapet and looked to the north. He saw the wimples of the lazy Grannoch Lane winding dimly through their white lily beds. In the starlight the white cups glimmered faintly up from their dark beds of leaves. Underneath the bridge there was only a velvety blackness of shadow.
What to do was now the question. Plainly he must at once go to Edinburgh, and see his father. That was the first certainty. But still more certainly he must first see Winsome, and, in the light of the morning and of her eyes, solve for her all the questions which must have sorely puzzled her, at the same time resolving his own perplexities. Then he must bid her adieu. Right proudly would he go to carve out a way for her. He had no doubts that the mastership in his old school, which Dr. Abel had offered him a month ago, would still be at his disposal. That Winsome loved him truly he did not doubt. He gave no thought to that. The cry across the gulf of air from the high march dyke by the pines on the hill, echoing down to the bridge in the valley of the Grannoch, had settled that question once for all.
As he sat on the bridge and listened to the ripple of the Grannoch lane running lightly over the shallows at the Stepping Stones, and to the more distant roar of the falls of the Black Water, he shaped out a course for himself and for Winsome. He had ceased to call her Winsome Charteris. ‘She,’ he called her—the only she. When next he gave her a surname he would call her Winsome Peden. Instinctively he took off his hat at the thought, as though he had opened a door and found himself light-heartedly and suddenly in a church.
Sitting thus on the bridge alone and listening to the ocean-like lapse of his own thoughts, as they cast up the future and the past like pebbles at his feet, he had no more thought of fear for his future than he had that first day at Craig Ronald, under the whin- bushes on the ridge behind him, on that day of the blanket-washing so many ages ago. He was so full of love that it had cast out fear.
Suddenly out of the gloom beneath the bridge upon which he was sitting, dangling his legs, there came a voice.
‘Maister Ralph Peden, Maister Ralph Peden.’
Ralph nearly fell backward over the parapet in his astonishment.
‘Who is that calling on me?’ he asked in wonder.
‘Wha but juist daft Jock Gordon? The hangman haesna catchit him yet, an' thank ye kindly—na, nor ever wull.’
‘Where are you, Jock, man?’ said Ralph, willing to humour the instrument of God.
‘The noo I'm on the shelf o' the brig; a braw bed it maks, if it is raither narrow. But graund practice for the narrow bed that I'll get i' the Dullarg kirkyaird some day or lang, unless they catch puir Jock and hang him. Na, na,’ said Jock with a canty kind of content in his voice, ‘they may luik a lang while or they wad think o' luikin' for him atween the foundation an' the spring o' the airch. An' that's but yin o' Jock Gordon's hidie holes, an' a braw an' guid yin it is. I hae seen this bit hole as fu' o' pairtricks and pheasants as it could hand, an' a' the keepers and their dowgs smellin', and them could na find it oot. Na, the water taks awa' the smell.’
‘Are ye not coming out, Jock?’ queried Ralph.
‘That's as may be,’ said Jock briefly. ‘What do ye want wi' Jock?’
‘Come up,’ said Ralph; ‘I shall tell you how ye can help me. Ye ken that I helped you yestreen.’
‘Weel, ye gied me an unco rive aff that blackguard frae the Castle, gin that was a guid turn, I ken na!’
So grumbling, Jock Gordon came to the upper level of the bridge, paddling unconcernedly with his bare feet and ragged trousers through the shallows.
‘Weel, na—hae ye a snuff aboot ye, noo that I am here? No—dear sirce, what wad I no do for a snuff?’
‘Jock,’ said Ralph, ‘I shall have to walk to Edinburgh. I must start in the morning.’
‘Ye'll hae plenty o' sillar, nae doot?’ said Jock practically.
Ralph felt his pockets. In that wild place it was not his custom to carry money, and he had not even the few shillings which were in his purse at the manse.
‘I am sorry to say,’ he said, ‘that I have no money with me.’
‘Then ye'll be better o' Jock Gordon wi' ye?’ said Jock promptly.
Ralph saw that it would not do to be saddled with Jock in the city, where it might be necessary for him to begin a new career immediately; so he gently broke the difficulties to Jock.
‘Deed na, ye needna be feared; Jock wadna set a fit in a toon. There's ower mony nesty imps o' boys, rinnin' an' cloddin' stanes at puir Jock, forby caa'in' him names. Syne he loses his temper wi' them an' then he micht do them an injury an' get himsel' intil the gaol. Na, na, when Jock sees the blue smoor o' Auld Reeky gaun up into the lift he'll turn an' gae hame.’
‘Well, Jock,’ said Ralph, ‘it behooves me to see Mistress Winsome before I go. Ye ken she and I are good friends.’
‘So's you an' me; but had puir Jock no cried up till ye, ye wad hae gane aff to Embra withoot as muckle as 'Fairguide'en to ye, Jock.’
‘Ah, Jock, but then you must know that Mistress Charteris and I are lad and lass,’ he continued, putting the case as he conceived in a form that would suit it to Jock's understanding.
‘Lad an' lass! What did ye think Jock took ye for? This is nane o' yer Castle tricks,’ he said; ‘mind, Jock can bite yet!’
‘No, no, Jock, you need not be feared. She and I are going to be married some day before very long’—a statement made entirely without authority.
‘Hoot, hoot!’ said Jock, ‘wull nocht ser' ye but that ava—a sensible man like you? In that case ye'll hae seen the last o' Jock Gordon. I canna be doin' wi' a gilravage o' bairns aboot a hoose—’
‘Jock,’ said Ralph earnestly, ‘will you help me to see her before I go?’
‘'Deed that I wull,’ said Jock, very practically. ‘I'll gaun an' wauken her the noo!’
‘You must not do that,’ said Ralph, ‘but perhaps if you knew where Meg Kissock slept, you might tell her.’
‘Certes, I can that,’ said Jock; ‘I can pit my haund on her in a meenit. But mind yer, when ye're mairret, dinna expect Jock Gordon to come farther nor the back kitchen.’
So grumbling, ‘It couldna be expeckit—I canna be doin' wi' bairns ava'—.’ Jock took his way up the long loaning of Craig Ronald, followed through the elderbushes by Ralph Peden.
chapter thirty two
OUTCAST AND ALIEN FROM THE COMMONWEALTH
‘Moreover,’ said the minister—coming in an hour afterwards to take up the interrupted discussion—‘the kirk of the Marrow overrides all considerations of affection or self-interest. If you are to enter the Marrow kirk, you must live for the Marrow, and fight for the Marrow, and, above all, you must wed for the Marrow.’
‘As you did, no doubt,’ said Ralph, somewhat ungenerously.
Ralph had remained sitting in the study where the minister had left him.
‘No, for myself,’ said the minister, with a certain firmness and high civility, which made the young man ashamed of himself, ‘I am no true son of the Marrow. I have indeed served the Marrow kirk in her true and only protesting section for twenty-five years; but I am only kept in my position by the good grace of two men—of your father and of Walter Skirving. And do not think that they keep their mouths sealed by any love for me. Were there only my own life and good name to consider, they would speak instantly, and I should be deposed, without cavil or word spoken in my own defence. Nay, by what I have already spoken, I have put myself in your hands. All that you have to do is simply to rise in your place on the Sabbath morn and tell the congregation what I have told you— that the minister of the Marrow kirk in Dullarg is a man rebuking sin when his own hearthstone is unclean—a man irregularly espoused, who wrongfully christened his own unacknowledged child.’
Allan Welsh laid his brow against the hard wood of the study table as though to cool it.
‘No,’ he continued, looking Ralph in the face, as the midnight hummed around, and the bats softly fluttered like gigantic moths outside, ‘your father is silent for the sake of the good name of the Marrow kirk; but this thing shall never be said of his own son, and the only hope of the Marrow kirk—the lad she has colleged and watched and prayed for—not only the two congregations of Edinburgh and the Dullarg contributing yearly out of their smallest pittances, but the faithful single members and adherents throughout broad Scotland—many of whom are coming to Edinburgh at the time of our oncoming synod, in order to be present at it, and at the communion when I shall assist your father.’
‘But why can not I marry Winsome Charteris, even though she be your daughter, as you say?’ asked Ralph.
‘O young man,’ said the minister, ‘ken ye so little about the kirk o' the Marrow, and the respect for her that your father and myself cherish for the office of her ministry, that ye think that we could permit a probationer, on trials for the highest office within her gift, to connect himself by tie, bond, or engagement with the daughter of an unblest marriage? That would be winking at a new sin, darker even, than the old.’ Then, with a burst of passion— ‘I, even I, would sooner denounce it myself, though it cost me my position! For twenty years I have known that before God I was condemned. You have seen me praying—yes, often—all night, but never did you or mortal man hear me praying for myself.’
Ralph held out his hand in sympathy. Mr. Welsh did not seem to notice it. He went on:
‘I was praying for this poor simple folk—the elect of God—their minister alone a castaway, set beyond the mercy of God by his own act. Have I not prayed that they might never be put to shame by the knowledge of the minister's sin being made a mockery in the courts of Belial? And have I not been answered?’
Here we fear that Mr. Welsh referred to the ecclesiastical surroundings of the Reverend Erasmus Teends.
‘And I prayed for my poor lassie, and for you, when I saw you both in the floods of deep waters. I have wept great and bitter tears for you twain. But I am to receive my answer and reward, for this night you shall give me your word that never more will you pass word of love to Winsome, the daughter of Allan Charteris Welsh. For the sake of the Marrow kirk and the unstained truth delivered to the martyrs, and upheld by your father one great day, you will do this thing.’
‘Mr. Welsh,’ said the young man calmly, ‘I cannot, even though I be willing, do this thing. My heart and life, my honour and word, are too deeply engaged for me to go back. At whatever cost to myself, I must keep tryst and pledge with the girl who has trusted me, and who for me has tonight suffered things whose depths of pain and shame I know not yet.’
‘Then,’ said the minister sternly, ‘you and I must part. My duty is done. If you refuse my appeal, you are no true son of the Marrow kirk, and no candidate that I can recommend for her ministry. Moreover, to keep you longer in my house and at my board were tacitly to encourage you in your folly.’
‘It is quite true,’ replied Ralph, unshaken and undaunted, ‘that I may be as unfit as you say for the office and ministry of the Marrow kirk. It is, indeed, only as I have thought for a long season. If that be so, then it were well that I should withdraw, and leave the place for some one worthier.’
‘I wonder to hear ye, Ralph Peden, your father's son,’ said the minister, ‘you that have been colleged by the shillings and sixpences of the poor hill folk. How will ye do with these?’
‘I will pay them back,’ said Ralph.
‘Hear ye, man: can ye pay back the love that hained and saved to send them to Edinburgh? Can ye pay back the prayers and expectations that followed ye from class to class, rejoicing in your success, praying that the salt of holiness might be put for you into the fountains of earthly learning? Pay back, Ralph Peden?—I wonder sair that ye are not shamed!’
Indeed, Ralph was in a sorrowful quandary. He knew that it was all true, and he saw no way out of it without pain and grief to some. But the thought of Winsome's cry came to him, heard in the lonesome night. That appeal had severed him in a moment from all his old life. He could not, though he were to lose heaven and earth, leave her now to reproach and ignominy. She had claimed him only in her utter need, and he would stand good, lover and friend to be counted on, till the world should end.
‘It is true what you say,’ said Ralph; ‘I mourn for it every word, but I cannot and will not submit my conscience and my heart to the keeping even of the Marrow kirk.’
‘Ye should have thought on that sooner,’ interjected the minister grimly.
‘God gave me my affections as a sacred trust. This also is part of my religion. And I will not, I cannot in any wise give up hope of winning this girl whom I love, and whom you above all others ought surely to love.’
‘Then,’ said the minister, rising solemnly with his hand outstretched as when he pronounced the benediction, ‘I, Allan Welsh, who love you as my son, and who love my daughter more than ten daughters who bear no reproach, tell you, Ralph Peden, that I can no longer company with you. Henceforth I count you as a rebel and a stranger. More than self, more than life, more than child or wife, I, sinner as I am, love the honour and discipline of the kirk of the Marrow. Henceforth you and I are strangers.’
The words fired the young man. He took up his hat, which had fallen upon the floor.
‘If that be so, the sooner that this house is rid of the presence of a stranger and a rebel the better for it, and the happier for you. I thank you for all the kindness you have shown to me, and I bid you, with true affection and respect, farewell!’
So, without waiting even to go upstairs for anything belonging to him, and with no further word on either side, Ralph Peden stepped into the clear, sobering midnight, the chill air meeting him like a wall. The stars had come out and were shining frosty-clear, though it was June.
And as soon as he was gone out the minister fell on his knees, and so continued all the night praying with his face to the earth.
chapter thirty one
THE STUDY OF THE MANSE OF DULLARG
It was growing slowly dusk again when Ralph Peden returned from visiting Craig Ronald along the shore road to the Dullarg and its manse. He walked briskly, as one who has good news. Sometimes he whistled to himself—breaking off short with a quick smile at some recollection. Once he stopped and laughed aloud. Then he threw a stone at a rook which eyed him superciliously from the top of a turf dyke. He made a bad shot, at which the black critic wiped the bare butt of his bill upon the grass, uttered a hoarse ‘A-ha!’ of derision, and plunged down squatty among the dock- leaves on the other side.
As Ralph turned up the manse loaning to the bare front door, he was conscious of a vague uneasiness, the feeling of a man who returns to a house of gloom from a world where all things have been full of sunshine. It was not the same world since yesterday. Even he, Ralph Peden, was not the same man. But he entered the house with that innocent affectation of exceeding ease which is the boy's tribute to his own inexperience. He went up the stairs through the dark lobby and entered Allan Welsh's study. The minister was sitting with his back to the window, his hands clasped in front of him, and his great domed forehead and emaciated features standing out against the orange and crimson pool of glory where the sun had gone down.
Ralph ostentatiously clattered down his armful of books on the table. The minister did not speak at first, and Ralph began his explanation.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, hesitating and blushing under the keen eyes of his father's friend. ‘I had no idea I should have been detained, but the truth is—’
‘I ken what the truth is,’ said Allan Welsh, quietly. ‘Sit down, Ralph Peden. I have somewhat to say to you.’
A cold chill ran through the young man's veins, to which succeeded a thrill of indignation. Was it possible that he was about to reproach him, as a student in trials for the ministry of the Marrow kirk, with having behaved in any way unbecoming of an aspirant to that high office, or left undone anything expected of him as his father's son?
The minister was long in speaking. Against the orange light of evening which barred the window, his face could not be seen, but Ralph had the feeling that his eyes, unseen themselves, were reading into his very soul. He sat down and clenched his hands under the table,
‘I was at the Bridge of Grannoch this day,’ began the minister at last. ‘I was on my way to visit a parishioner, but I do not conceal from you that I also made it my business to observe your walk and conversation.’
‘By what right do you so speak to me?’ began Ralph, the hotter blood of his mother rising within him.
‘By the right given to me by your father to study your heart and to find out whether indeed it is seeking to walk in the more perfect way. By my love and regard for you, I hope I may also say.’
The minister paused, as if to gather strength for what he had yet to say. He leaned his head upon his hand, and Ralph did not see that his frail figure was shaken with some emotion too strong for his physical powers, only kept in check by the keen and indomitable will within.
‘Ralph, my lad,’ Allan Welsh continued, ‘do not think that I have not foreseen this; and had your father written to inform me of his intention to send you to me, I should have urged him to cause you to abide in your own city. What I feared in thought is in act come to pass. I saw it in your eyes yestreen.’
Ralph's eyes spoke an indignant query.
‘Ralph Peden,’ said the minister, ‘since I came here, eighteen years ago, not a mouse has crept out of Craig Ronald but I have made it my business to know it. I am no spy, and yet I need not to be told what happened yesterday or today.’
‘Then, sir, you know that I have no need to be ashamed.’
‘I have much to say to you, Ralph, which I desire to say by no means in anger. But first let me say this: It is impossible that you can ever be more to Winifred Charteris than you are today.’
‘That is likely enough, sir, but I would like to know why in that case I am called in question.’ ‘Because I have been, more than twenty years ago, where you are today, Ralph Peden, I—even I— have seen eyes blue as those of Winsome Charteris kindle with pleasure at my approach. Yes, I have known it. And I have also seen the lids lie white and still upon these eyes, and I am here to warn you from the primrose way; and also, if need be, to forbid you to walk therein.’
His voice took a sterner tone with the last words.
Ralph bowed his head on the table and listened; but there was no feeling save resentment and resistance in his heart.
The minister went on in a level, unemotional tone, like one telling a tale of long ago, of which the issues and even the interests are dead and gone.
‘I do not look now like a man on whom the eye of woman could ever rest with the abandonment of love. Yet I, Allan Welsh, have seen 'the love that casteth out fear.'
After a pause the high, expressionless voice took up the tale.
‘Many years ago there were two students, poor in money but rich in their mutual love. They were closer in affection than twin brothers. The elder was betrothed to be married to a beautiful girl in the country; so he took down his friend with him to the village where the maid dwelt to stand by his side and look upon the joy of the bridegroom. He saw the trysted (betrothed) of his friend. He and she looked into one another's eyes and were drawn together as by a power beyond them. The elder was summoned suddenly back to the city, and for a week he, all unthinking, left the friends of his love together glad that they should know one another better. They walked together. They spoke of many things, ever returning back to speak of themselves. One day they held a book together till they heard their hearts beat audibly, and in the book read no more that day.
‘Upon the friend's return he found only an empty house and distracted parents. Bride and brother had fled. Word came that they had been joined by old Joseph Paisley, the Gretna Green 'welder,' without blessing of minister or kirk. Then they hid themselves in a little Cumbrian village, where for six years the unfaithful friend wrought for his wife—for so he deemed her—till in the late bitterness of bringing forth she died, that was the fairest of women and the unhappiest.’
The minister ceased. Outside the rain had come on in broad single drops, laying the dust on the road. Ralph could hear it pattering on the broad leaves of the plane-tree outside the window. He did not like to hear it. It sounded like a woman's tears.
But he could not understand how all this bore on his case. He was silenced and awed, but it was with the sight of a soul of a man of years and approved sanctity in deep apparent waters of sorrow.
The minister lifted his head and listened. In the ancient woodwork of the manse, somewhere in the crumbling wainscoting, the little boring creature called a death-watch ticked like the ticking of an old verge watch. Mr. Welsh broke off with a sudden causeless auger very appalling in one so sage and sober in demeanour.
‘There's that beast again!’ he said; ‘often have I thought it was ticking in my head. I have heard it ever since the night she died—’
‘I wonder at a man like you,’ said Ralph, ‘with your wisdom and Christian standing, caring for a worm—’
‘You're a very young man, and when you are older maybe you'll wonder at a deal fewer things,’ answered the minister with a kind of excited truculence very foreign to his habit, ‘for I myself am a worm and no man,’ he added dreamily. ‘And often I tried to kill the beast. Ye see thae marks—’ he broke off again—‘I bored for it till the boards are a honeycomb, but the thing aye ticks on.’
‘But, Mr. Welsh,’ said Ralph eagerly, with some sympathy in his voice, ‘why should you trouble yourself about this story now—or I, for the matter of that? I can understand that Winsome Charteris has somehow to do with it, and that the knowledge has come to you in the course of your duty; but even if, at any future time, Winsome Charteris were aught to me or I to her—the which I have at present only too little hope of—her forbears, be they whomsoever they might, were no more to me than Julius Caesar. I have seen her and looked into her eyes. What needs she of ancestors that is kin to the angels?’
Something like pity came into the minister's stern eyes as he listened to the lad. Once he had spoken just such wild, heart-eager words.
‘I will answer you in a sentence,’ he said. ‘I that speak with you am the cause. I am he that has preached law and the gospel—for twenty years covering my sin with the Pharisee's strictness of observance. I am he that was false friend but never false lover— that married without kirk or blessing. I am the man that clasped a dead woman's hand whom I never owned as wife, and watched afar off the babe that I never dared to call mine own. I am the father of Winifred Charteris, coward before man, castaway before God. Of my sin two know besides my Maker—the father that begot you, whose false friend I was in the days that were, and Walter Skirving, the father of the first Winifred whose eyes this hand closed under the Peacock tree at Crossthwaite.’
The broad drops fell on the window-panes in splashes, and the thunder rain drummed on the roof.
The minister rose and went out, leaving Ralph Peden sitting in the dark with the universe in ruins about him. The universe is fragile at twenty-one.
And overhead the great drops fell from the brooding thunder- clouds, and in the wainscoting of Allan Welsh's study the death- watch ticked.
THE HILL GATE
There was no merry group outside Winsome's little lattice window this night, as she sat unclad to glimmering white in the quiet of her room. In her heart there was that strange, quiet thrill of expectancy—the resolve of a maiden's heart, when she knows without willing that at last the flood-gates of her being must surely be raised and the great flood take her to the sea. She did not face the thought of what she would say. In such a case a man plans what he will say, and once in three times he says it. But a woman is wiser. She knows that in that hour it will be given her what she shall speak.
‘I shall go to him,’ said Winsome to herself; ‘I must, for he is going away, and he has need of me. Can I let him go without a word?’
Though Ralph had done no noble action in her sight or within her ken, yet there was that about him which gave her the knowledge that she would be infinitely safe with him even to the world's end. Winsome wondered how she could so gladly go, when she would not have so much as dreamed of stealing out at night to meet any other, though she might have known him all her life. She did not know, often as she had heard it read, that ‘perfect love casteth out fear.’ Then she said to herself gently, as if she feared that the peeping roses at the window might hear, ‘Perhaps it is because I love him.’ Perhaps it was. Happy Winsome, to have found it out so young!
The curtain of the dark drew down. Moist airs blew into the room, warm with the scent of the flowers of a summer night. Honeysuckle and rose blew in, and quieted the trembling nerves of the girl going to meet her first love.
‘He has sair need o' me!’ she said, lapsing as she sometimes did into her grandmother's speech. ‘He will stand before me,’ she said, ‘and look so pale and beautiful. Then I will not let him come nearer—for a while—unless it is very dark and I am afraid.’
She glanced out. It promised to be very dark, and a tremour came over her. Then she clad herself in haste, drawing from a box a thin shawl of faded pale blue silk with a broad crimson edge, which she drew close about her shoulders. The band of red lying about her neck forced forward her golden tresses, throwing them about her brow so that they stood out round her face in a changeful aureole of fine-spun gold. She took a swift glance in the mirror, holding her candle in her hand. Then she laughed a nervous little laugh all to herself. How foolish of her! Of course, it would be impossible for him to see her. But nevertheless she put out her light, and went to the door smiling. She had no sense of doing that which she ought not to do; for she had been accustomed to her liberty in all matters whatsoever, ever since she came to Craig Ronald, and in the summer weather nothing was more common than for her to walk out upon the moor in the dewy close of day. She shut the door quietly behind her, and set her foot on the silent elastic turf, close cropped by many woolly generations. The night shut down behind her closer than the door. The western wind cooled her brain, and the singing in her heart rose into a louder altar-song. A woman ever longs to be giving herself. She rejoices in sacrifice. It is a pity that she so often chooses an indifferently worthy altar. Yet it is questionable whether her own pleasure in the sacrifice is any the less.
At the gate of the yard, which had been left open and hung backward perilously upon its hinges, she paused.
‘That is that careless girl, Jess!’ she said, practical even at such a moment.
And she was right—it was Jess who had so left it. Indeed, had she been a moment sooner, she might have seen Jess flit by, taking the downward road which led through the elder—trees to the waterside. As it was, she only shut the gate carefully, so that no night-wandering cattle might disturb the repose of her grandparents, laid carefully asleep by Meg in their low-ceilinged bedroom.
The whole farm breathed from its walls and broad yard spaces the peaceful rise and fall of an infant's repose. There was no sound about the warm and friendly place save the sleepy chunner of a hen on the bauks of the peat-house, just sufficiently awake to be conscious of her own comfort.
The hill road was both stony and difficult, but Winsome's light feet went along it easily and lightly. On not a single stone did she stumble. She walked so gladsomely that she trod on the air. There were no rocks in her path that night. Behind her the light in the west winked once and went out. Palpable darkness settled about her. The sigh of the waste moorlands, where in the haggs the wild fowl were nestling and the adders slept, came down over the well-pastured braes to her.
Winsome did not hasten. Why hasten, when at the end of the way there certainly lies the sweet beginning of all things. Already might she be happy in the possession of certainties? It never occurred to her that Ralph would not be at the trysting-place. That a messenger might fail did not once cross her mind. But maidenly tremours, delicious in their uncertainty, coursed along her limbs and through all her being. Could any one have seen, there was a large and almost exultant happiness in the depths of her eyes. Her lips were parted a little, like a child that waits on tiptoe to see the curtain rise on some wondrous and long- dreamed-of spectacle.
Soon against the darker sky the hill dyke stood up, looking in the gloom massive as the Picts' Wall of long ago. It followed irregularly the ridgy dips and hollows downward, till it ran into the intenser darkness of the pines. In a moment, ere yet she was ready, there before her was the gate of her tryst. She paused, affrighted for the first time. She listened, and there was no sound. A trembling came over her and an uncertainty. She turned, in act to flee.
But out of the dark of the great dyke stepped a figure cloaked from head to heel, and while Winsome wavered, tingling now with shame and fear, in an instant she was enclosed within two very strong arms, that received her as in a snare a bird is taken.
Suddenly Winsome felt her breath shorten. She panted as if she could not get air, like the bird as it nutters and palpitates.
‘Oh, I ought not to have come!’ she said, ‘but I could not help it!’
There was no word in answer, only a closer folding of the arms that cinctured her. In the west the dusk was lightening and the eyelid of the night drew slowly and grimly up.
When for the first time she looked shyly upward, Winsome found herself in the arms of Agnew Greatorix. Wrapped in his great military cloak, with a triumphant look in his handsome face, he smiled down upon her.
Great Lord of Innocence! give now this lamb of thine thy help!
The leaping soul of pure disembodied terror stood in Winsome's eyes. Fascinated like an antelope in the coils of a python she gazed, her eyes dilating and contracting—the world whirling about her, the soul of her bounding and panting to burst its bars.
‘Winsome, my darling!’ he said, ‘you have come to me. You are mine’—bending his face to hers.
Not yet had the power to speak or to resist come back to her, so instant and terrible was her surprise. But at the first touch of his lips upon her cheek the very despair brought back to her tenfold her own strength. She pushed against him with her hands, straining him from her by the rigid tension of her arms, setting her face far from his, but she was still unable to break the clasp of his arms about her.
‘Let me go! let me go!’ she cried, in a hoarse and labouring whisper.
‘Gently, gently, fair and softly, my birdie,’ said Greatorix; ‘surely you have not forgotten that you sent for me to meet you here. Well, I am here, and I am not such a fool as to come for nothing!’
The very impossibility of words steeled Winsome's heart,
‘I send for you!’ cried Winsome; ‘I never had message or word with you in my life to give you a right to touch me with your little finger. Let me go, and this instant, Agnew Greatorix!’
‘Winsome, sweetest girl, it pleases you to jest. Have not I your own letter in my pocket telling me where to meet you? Did you not write it? I am not angry. You can play out your play and pretend you do not care for me as much as you like; but I will not let you go. I have loved you too long, though till now you were cruel and would give me no hope. So when I got your letter I knew it was love, after all, that had been in your eyes as I rode away.’
‘Listen,’ said Winsome eagerly; ‘there is some terrible mistake; I never wrote a line to you—’
‘It matters not; it was to me that your letter came, brought by a messenger to the castle an hour ago. So here I am, and here you are, my beauty, and we shall just make the best of it, as lovers should when the nights are short.’
He closed his arms about her, forcing the strength out of her wrists with slow, rude, masculine muscles. A numbness and a deadness ran through her limbs as he compelled her nearer to him. Her head spun round with the fear of fainting. With a great effort she forced herself back a step from him, and just as she felt the breath of his mouth upon hers her heart made way through her lips.
‘Ralph! Ralph! Help me—help! Oh, come to me!’ she cried in her extremity of terror and the oncoming rigour of unconsciousness.
The next moment she dropped limp and senseless into the arms of Agnew Greatorix. For a long moment he held her up, listening to the echoes of that great cry, wondering whether it would wake up the whole world, or if, indeed, there were none to answer in that solitary place.
But only the wild bird wailed like a lost soul too bad for heaven, too good for hell, wandering in the waste forever.
Agnew Greatorix laid Winsome down on the heather, lifeless and still, her pure white face resting in a nest of golden curls, the red band of her mother's Indian shawl behind all.
But as the insulter stooped to take his will of her lips, now pale and defenceless, something that had been crouching beastlike in the heather for an hour, tracking and tracing him like a remorseless crawling horror, suddenly sprang with a voiceless rush upon him as he bent over Winsome's prostrate body—gripped straight at his throat and bore him backward bareheaded to the ground.
So unexpected was the assault that, strong man as Greatorix was, he had not the least chance of resistance. He reeled at the sudden constriction of his throat by hands that hardly seemed human, so wide was their clutch, so terrible the stringency of their grasp. He struck wildly at his assailant, but, lying on his back with the biting and strangling thing above him, his arms only met on one another in vain blows. He felt the teeth of a great beast meet in his throat, and in the sudden agony he sent abroad the mighty roar of a man in the grips of death by violence. But his assailant was silent, save for a fierce whinnying growl as of a wild beast greedily lapping blood.
It was this terrible outcry ringing across the hills that brought the farm steading suddenly awake, and sent the lads swarming about the house with lanterns. But it was Ralph alone who, having heard the first cry of his love and listened to nothing else, ran onward, bending low with a terrible stitch in his side which caught his breath and threw him to the ground almost upon the white-wrapped body of his love. Hastily he knelt beside her and laid his hand upon her heart. It was beating surely though faintly.
But on the other side, against the gray glimmer of the march dyke, he could see the twitchings of some great agony. At intervals there was the ghastly, half-human growling and the sobbing catch of some one striving for breath.
A light shone across the moor, fitfully wavering as the searcher cast its rays from side to side. Ralph glanced behind him with the instinct to carry his love away to a place of safety. But he saw the face of Meg Kissock, with slow Jock Forrest behind her carrying a lantern. Meg ran to the side of her mistress.
‘Wha's dune this?’ she demanded, turning fiercely to Ralph. ‘Gin ye—’
‘I know nothing about it. Bring the lantern here quickly,’ he said, leaving Winsome in the hands of Meg. Jock Forrest brought the lantern round, and there on the grass was Agnew Greatorix, with daft Jock Gordon above him, his sinewy hands gripping his neck and his teeth in his throat.
Ralph pulled Jock Gordon off and flung him upon the heather, where Jock Forrest set his foot upon him, and turned the light of the lantern upon the fierce face of a maniac, foam-flecked and blood- streaked. Jock still growled and gnashed his teeth, and struggled in sullen fury to get at his fallen foe. With his hat Ralph brought water from a deep moss-hole and dashed it upon the face of Winsome. In a little while, she began to sob in a heartbroken way. Meg took her head upon her knees, and soothed her mistress, murmuring tendernesses. Next he brought water to throw over the face and neck of Greatorix, which Jock Gordon in his fury had made to look like nothing human.
The rest might wait. It was Ralph's first care to get Winsome home. Kneeling down beside her he soothed her with whispered words, till the piteous sobbing in her throat stilled itself. The ploughman was at this moment stolidly producing pieces of rope from his pockets and tying up Jock Gordon's hands and feet; but after his first attempts again to fly at Greatorix, and his gasps of futile wrath when forced into the soft moss of the moor by Jock Forrest's foot, he had not offered to move.
His paroxysm was only one of the great spasms of madness which sometimes come over the innocently witless. He had heard close by him the cries of Winsome Charteris, whom he had worshipped for years almost in the place of the God whom he had not the understanding to know. The wonder rather was that he did not kill Greatorix outright. Had it happened a few steps nearer the great stone dyke, there is little doubt but that Jock Gordon would have beat out the assailant's brains with a ragged stone.
Winsome had not yet awakened enough to ask how all these things came about. She could only cling to Meg, and listen to Ralph whispering in her ear.
‘I can go home now,’ she said earnestly.
So Ralph and Meg helped her up, Ralph wrapping her in her great crimson-barred shawl.
Ralph would have kissed her, but Winsome, standing unsteadily clasping Meg's arm, said tenderly:
‘Not tonight. I am not able to bear it.’
It was almost midnight when Ralph and the silent Jock Forrest got Agnew Greatorix into the spring-cart to be conveyed to Greatorix Castle.
He lay with his eyes closed, silent. Ralph took Jock Gordon to the manse with him, determined to tell the whole to Mr. Welsh if necessary; but if it were not necessary, to tell no one more than he could help, in order to shelter Winsome from misapprehension. It says something for Ralph that, in the turmoil of the night and the unavailing questionings of the morning, he never for a moment thought of doubting his love. It was enough for him that in the depths of agony of body or spirit she had called out to him. All the rest would be explained in due time, and he could wait. Moreover, so selfish is love, that he had never once thought of Jess Kissock from the moment that his love's cry had pealed across the valley of the elder-trees and the plain of the water meadows.
When he brought Jock Gordon, hardly yet humanly articulate, into the kitchen of the manse, the house was still asleep. Then Ralph wakened Manse Bell, who slept above. He told her that Jock Gordon had taken a fit upon the moor, that he had found him ill, and brought him home. Next he went up to the minister's room, where he found Mr. Welsh reading his Bible. He did not know that the minister had watched him both come and go from his window, or that he had remained all night in prayer for the lad, who, he misdoubted, was in deep waters.
As soon as Jock Gordon had drunk the tea and partaken of the beef ham which Manse Bell somewhat grumblingly set before him, he said:
‘Noo, I'll awa'. The tykes'll be after me, nae doot, but it's no in yin o' them to catch Jock Gordon gin yince he gets into the Dungeon o' Buchan.’
‘But ye maun wait on the minister or Maister Peden. They'll hae muckle to ask ye, nae doot!’ said Bell, who yearned for news.
‘Nae doot, nae doot!’ said daft Jock Gordon, ‘an' I hae little to answer. It's no for me to tie the rape roond my ain craig. Na, na, time aneu' to answer when I'm afore the sherra at Kirkcudbright for this nicht's wark.’
With these words Jock took his pilgrim staff and departed for parts unknown. As he said, it was not bloodhounds that could catch Jock Gordon on the Rhinns of Kells.
In the morning there was word come to the cot-house of the Kissocks that Mistress Kissock was wanted up at the castle to nurse a gentleman who had had an accident when shooting. Mistress Kissock was unable to go herself, but her daughter Jess went instead of her, having had some practice in nursing, among other experiences which she had gained in England. It was reported that she made an excellent nurse.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.