A TRIANGULAR CONVERSATION
It was the day of the fast before the Communion in the Dullarg. The services of the day were over, and Allan Welsh, the minister of the Marrow kirk, was resting in his study from his labours. Manse Bell came up and knocked, inclining her ear as she did so to catch the minister's low-toned reply.
‘Mistress Winifred Charteris frae the Craig Ronald to see ye, sir.’
Allan Welsh commanded his emotion without difficulty—what of it he felt—as indeed he had done for many years.
He rose, however, with his hand on the table as though for support, as Winsome came in. He received her in silence, bending over her hand with a certain grave reverence.
Winsome sat down. She was a little paler but even lovelier in the minister's eyes than when he had seen her before. The faint violet shadows under her lower lids were deeper, and gave a new depth to her sapphire eyes whose irises were so large that the changeful purple lights in them came and went like summer lightnings.
It was Winsome who first spoke, looking at him with a strange pity and a stirring of her soul that she could not account for. She had come unwillingly on her errand, disliking him as the cause of her lover's absence—one of the last things a woman learns to forgive. But, as she looked on Allan Welsh, so bowed and broken, his eyes fallen in, looking wistfully out of the pain of his life, her heart went out to him, even as she thought that of a truth he was Ralph Peden's enemy.
‘My grandfather,’ she said, and her voice was low, equable, and serious, ‘sent me with a packet to you that he instructed me only to give into your own hands.’
Winsome went over to the minister and gave him a sealed parcel. Allan Welsh took it in his hand and seemed to weigh it.
‘I thank you,’ he said, commanding his voice with some difficulty.
‘And I ask you to thank Walter Skirving for his remembrance of me. It is many years since we were driven apart, but I have not forgotten the kindness of the long ago!’
He opened the parcel. It was sealed with Walter Skirving's great seal ring which he wore on his watch-chain, lying on the table before him as he kept his never-ending vigil. There was a miniature and a parcel of letters within.
It was the face of a fair girl, with the same dark-blue eyes of the girl now before him, and the same golden hair—the face of an earlier but not a fairer Winifred. Allan Welsh set his teeth, and caught at the table to stay his dizzying head. The letters were his own. It was Walter Skirving's stern message to him. From the very tomb his own better self rose in judgment against him. He saw what he might have been—the sorrow he had wrought, and the path of ultimate atonement.
He had tried to part two young lovers who had chosen the straight and honest way. It was true that his duty to the kirk which had been his life, and which he himself was under condemnation according to his own standard, had seemed to him to conflict with the path he had marked out for Ralph.
But his own letters, breaking from their brittle confining band, poured in a cataract of folded paper and close-knit writing which looked like his own self of long ago, upon the table before him. He was condemned out of his own mouth.
Winsome sat with her face turned to the window, from which she could see the heathery back of a hill which heaved its bulk between the manse and the lowlands at the mouth of the Dee. There was a dreamy look in her eyes, land her heart was far away in that Edinburgh town from which she had that day received a message to shake her soul with love and pity.
The minister of the Dullarg looked up.
‘Do you love him?’ he asked, abruptly and harshly.
Winsome looked indignant and surprised. Her love, laid away in the depths of her heart, was sacred, and not thus to be at the mercy of every rude questioner. But as her eye rested on Allan Welsh, the unmistakable accent of sincerity took hold on her—that accent which may ask all things and not be blamed.
‘I do love him,’ she said— ‘with all my heart.’
That answer does not vary while God is in his heaven.
The eye of Allan Welsh fell on the miniature. The woman he had loved so long ago took part in the conversation.
‘That is what you said twenty years ago!’ the unseen Winsome said from the table.
‘And he loves you?’ he asked, without looking up.
‘If I did not believe it, I could not live!’
Allan Welsh glanced with a keen and sudden scrutiny at Winsome Charteris; but the clearness of her eye and the gladness and faith at the bottom of it satisfied him as to his thought.
This Ralph Peden was a better man than he. A sad yearning face looked up at him from the table, and a voice thrilled in his ears across the years--
‘So did not you!’
‘You know,’ said Allan Welsh, again untrue to himself, ‘that it is not for Ralph Peden's good that he should love you.’ The formal part of him was dictating the words.
‘I know you think so, and I am here to ask you why,’ said Winsome fearlessly.
‘And if I persuade you, will you forbid him?’ said Allan Welsh, convinced of his own futility.
Winsome's heart caught the accent of insincerity. It had gone far beyond forbidding love or allowing it with Ralph Peden and herself.
‘I shall try!’ she said, with her own sweet serenity. But across the years a voice was pleading their case. As the black and faded ink of the letters flashed his own sentences across the minister's eye, the soul God had put within him rose in revolt against his own petty and useless preaching.
‘So did not you,’ persisted the voice in his ear. ‘Me you counselled to risk all, and you took me out into the darkness, lighting my way with love. Did ever I complain—father lost, mother lost, home lost, God well nigh lost—all for you; yet did I even regret when you saw me die?’
‘Think of the Marrow kirk,’ said the minister. ‘Her hard service does not permit a probationer, before whom lies the task of doctrine and reproof, to have father or mother, wife or sweetheart.’
‘And what did you,’ said the voice, ‘in that past day, care for the Marrow kirk, when the light shone upon me, and you thought the world, and the Marrow kirk with it, well lost for love's sake and mine?’
Allan Welsh bowed his head yet lower.
Winsome Charteris went over to him. His tears were falling fast on the dulled and yellowing paper.
Winsome put her hands on his shoulder.
‘Is that my mother's picture?’ she said, hardly knowing what she said.
Allan Welsh put his hand greedily about it, he could not let it go.
‘Will you kiss me for your mother's sake?’ he said.
And then, for the first time since her babyhood, Winsome Charteris, whose name was Welsh, kissed her father.
There were tears on her mother's miniature, but through them the face of the dead Winifred seemed to smile well pleased.
‘For my mother's sake!’ said Winsome again, and kissed him of her own accord on the brow.
Thus Walter Skirving's message was delivered.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.