chapter forty four
WINSOME'S LAST TRYST
It was the morn before a wedding, and there had been a constant stir all night all about the farmsteading, for a brand-new world was in the making. Such a marrying had not been for years. The farmers' sons for miles around were coming on their heavy plough-horses, with here and there one of better breed. Long ago in the earliest morning some one had rung the bell of the little kirk of the Dullarg. It came upon the still air a fairy tinkle, and many a cottar and many a shepherd turned over with a comfortable feeling: ‘This is the Sabbath morn; I need not rise so soon today.’ But all their wives remembered, and turned them out with wifely elbow.
It was Winsome Charteris's wedding day. The flower of all the countryside was to wed the young Edinburgh lad who had turned out so great a poet. It was the opinion of the district that her ‘intended’ had unsettled the thrones of all the great writers of the past by his volume of poems, which no one in the parish had read; but the fame of whose success had been wafted down upon the eastern breezes which bore the snell bite of the metropolis upon their front.
‘Tra-la-la-la!’ chanted the cocks of Craig Ronald.
‘Tra-la-la-la-la!’ airily sang the solitary bird which lived up among the pine woods, where, in the cot of Mistress Kissock, Ralph Peden occupied the little bedroom which Meg had got ready for him with such care and honour.
‘Tra-la-la-laa!’ was echoed in the airiest diminuendo from the far-away leader of the harem at the Nether Crae. His challenge crossed the wide gulf of air above Loch Grannoch, from which in the earliest morning the mists were rising.
Ralph Peden heard all three birds. He had a delightfully comfortable bedroom, and the flowers on the little white-covered table have come from the front square of Mistress Kissock's garden. There was a passion-flower on his table, which somehow reminded him of a girl who had put poppies in hair of the raven's wing hue. It had not grown in the garden of the cot.
Yet Ralph was out in the earliest dawn, listening to the sighing of the trees and taking in the odour of the perfume from the pines on the slope.
Ralph did not write any poem this morning, though the Muses were abroad in the stillness of the dawn. His eyes were on a little window once more overclambered by the June roses. His poem was down there, and it was coming to him.
How eagerly he looked, his eyes like telescopes! Then his heart thrilled. In the cool flood of slanting morning sunshine which had just overflowed the eastern gable of the house, some one swiftly crossed the court-yard of the farm. In a moment the sun, winking on a pair of tin pails, told him that Meg Kissock was going to the well. From the barn end some one stepped out by her side and walked to the well. Then, as they returned, it was not the woman who was carrying the winking pails. At the barn end they drew together in the shadow for a long minute, and then again Ralph saw Meg's back as she walked sedately to the kitchen door, the cans flashing rhythmically as she swung them. So high was he above them that he could even notice the mellow dimple of diffused light from the water in the bright pail centring and scattering the morning sunlight as it swayed.
Presently the one half of the blue kitchen door became black. It had been opened. Ralph's heart gave a great bound. Then the black became white and glorified, for framed within it appeared a slender shape like a shaft of light. Ralph's eyes did not leave the figure as it stepped out and came down by the garden edge.
Along the top of the closely-cut hawthorn a dot of light moved. It was but a speck, like the paler centre of the heather bells. Ralph ran swiftly down the great dyke in a manner more natural to a young man than dignified in a poet. In a minute he came to the edge of the glen in which Andra Kissock had guddled the trouts. That flash of lavender must pass this way. It passed and stayed.
So in the cool translucence of morning light the lovers met in this quiet glade, the great heather moors above them once more royally purple, the burnie beneath singing a gentle song, the birds vying with each other in complicated trills of pretended artlessness.
It was purely by chance that Winsome Charteris passed this way. And a kind Providence, supplemented on Ralph's side by some activity and observation, brought him also to the glen of the elders that June morning. Yet there are those who say that there is nothing in coincidence.
When Winsome, moving thoughtfully onward, gently waving a slip of willow in her hand, came in sight of Ralph, she stood and waited. Ralph went towards her, and so on their marriage morn these two lovers met.
It was like that morning on which by the lochside they parted, yet it was not like it.
With that prescience which is a sixth sense to women, Winsome had slipped on the old sprigged gown which had done duty at the blanket-washing so long ago, and her hair, unbound in the sun, shone golden as it flowed from beneath the lilac sunbonnet. As for Ralph, it does not matter how he was dressed. In love, dress does not matter a brass button after the first corner is turned—at least not to the woman.
‘Sweet,’ said Ralph, ‘you are awake?’
Winsome looked up with eyes so glorious and triumphant that a blind man could scarce have doubted the fact.
‘And you love me?’ he continued, reading her eyes. With her old ripple of laughter she lightened the strain of the occasion.
‘You are a silly boy,’ she said; ‘but you'll learn. I have come out to gather flowers,’ she added, ingenuously. ‘I shall expect you to help. No—no—and nothing else.’
Had Ralph been in a fit condition to observe Nature this morning, it might have occurred to him that when girls come out to gather flowers for somewhat extensive decoration, they bring with them at least a basket and generally also their fourth best pair of scissors. Winsome had neither. But he was not in a mood for careful inductions.
The morning lights sprayed upon them as they went hither and thither gathering flowers—dew-drenched hyacinths, elastic wire- strung bluebells the colour of the sky when the dry east wind blows, the first great red bushes of the ling. Now it is a known fact that, in order properly to gather flowers, the collectors must divide and so quarter the ground.
‘But this was not a scientific expedition,’ said Ralph, when the folly of their mode of proceeding was pointed out to him.
It was manifestly impossible that they could gather flowers walking with the palm of Ralph's left hand laid on the inside of Winsome's left arm. The thing cannot be done. At least so Ralph admitted afterwards.
‘No,’ said Ralph, ‘but you made me promise to keep my shoulders back, and I am trying to to do it now.’
And his manner of assisting Winsome to gather her flowers for her wedding bouquet was, when you come to think of it, admirably adapted for keeping the shoulders back.
‘Meg waked me this morning,’ said Winsome suddenly.
‘She did, did she?’ remarked Ralph ineffectively, with a quick envy of Meg. Then it occurred to him that he had no need to envy Meg. And Winsome blushed for no reason at all.
Then she became suddenly practical, as the protective instinct teaches women to be on these occasions.
‘You have not seen your study,’ she said.
‘No,’ said Ralph, ‘but I have heard enough about it. It has occupied sixteen pages in the last three letters.’
Ralph considered the study a good thing, but he had his views upon the composition of love-letters.
‘You are an ungrateful boy,’ said Winsome sternly, ‘and I shall see that you get no more letters—not any more!’
‘I shall never want any, little woman,’ cried Ralph joyously, ‘for I shall have you!’
It was a blessing that at this moment they were passing under the dense shade of the great oaks at the foot of the orchard. Winsome had thought for five minutes that it would happen about there. It happened.
A quarter of an hour later they came out into the cool ocean of leaf shadow which lay blue upon the grass and daisies. Winsome now carried the sunbonnet over her arm, and in the morning sunshine her uncovered head was so bright that Ralph could not gaze at it long. Besides, he wanted to look at the eyes that looked at him, and one cannot do everything at once.
‘This is your study,’ she said, standing back to let him look in. It was a long, low room with an outside stair above the farthermost barn, and Winsome had fitted it up wondrously for Ralph. It opened off the orchard, and the late blossoms scattered into it when the winds blew from the south.
They stood together on the topmost step. There was a desk and one chair, and a low window-seat in each of the deep windows.
‘You will never be disturbed here,’ said Winsome.
‘But I want to be disturbed,’ said Ralph, who was young and did not know any better.
‘Now go in,’ said Winsome, giving him a little push in the way that, without any offence, a proximate wife may. ‘Go in and study a little this morning, and see how you like it.’
Ralph considered this as fair provocation, and turned, with bonds and imprisonment in his mind. But Winsome had vanished.
But from beneath came a clear voice out of the unseen:
‘If you don't like it, you can come round and tell me. It will not be too late till the afternoon. Any time before three!’
A mere man is at a terrible disadvantage in word play of this kind. On this occasion Ralph could think of nothing better than--
‘Winsome Charteris, I shall pay you back for this!’
Then he heard what might either have been a bell ringing for the fairies' breakfast, or a ripple of the merriest earthly laughter very far away.
Then he sat down to study.
It took him quite an hour to arrive at a conclusion; but when reached it was a momentous one. It was, that it is a mistake to be married in summer, for three o'clock in the afternoon is such a long time in coming.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.