chapter thirty nine
JEMIMA, KEZIA, AND LITTLE KEREN-HAPPUCH
Ralph found the professor out. He was, indeed, engaged in an acrimonious discussion on the Wernerian theory, and at that moment he was developing a remarkable scientific passion, which threatened to sweep his adversaries from the face of the earth in the debris of their heresies.
Within doors, however, Ralph found a very warm welcome from his three cousins—Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch. Jemima was tall and angular, with her hair accurately parted in the middle, and drawn in a great sweep over her ears—a fashion intended by Nature for Keren-happuch, who was round of face, and with a complexion in which there appeared that mealy pink upon the cheeks which is peculiar to the metropolis. Kezia was counted the beauty of the family, and was much looked up to by her elder and younger sisters.
These three girls had always made much of Ralph, ever since he used to play about the many garrets and rooms of their old mansion beneath the castle, before they moved out to the new house at the Sciennes. They had long been in love with him, each in her own way; though they had always left the first place to Kezia, and wove romances in their own heads with Ralph for the central figure. Jemima, especially, had been very jealous of her sisters, who were considerably younger, and had often spoken seriously to them about flirting with Ralph. It was Jemima who came to the door; for, in those days, all except the very grandest persons thought no more of opening the outer than the inner doors of their houses.
‘Ralph Peden, have you actually remembered that there is such a house as the Sciennes?’ said Jemima, holding up her face to receive the cousinly kiss.
Ralph bestowed it chastely. Whereupon followed Kezia and little Keren-happuch, who received slightly varied duplicates.
Then the three looked at one another. They knew that this Ralph had eaten of the tree of knowledge.
‘That is not the way you kissed us before you went away,’ said outspoken Kezia, who had experience in the matter wider than that of the others, looking him straight in the eyes as became a beauty.
For once Ralph was thoroughly taken aback, and blushed richly and long.
Kezia laughed as one who enjoyed his discomfiture.
‘I knew it would come,’ she said. ‘Is she a milkmaid? She's not the minister's daughter, for he is a bachelor, you said!’
Jemima and Keren-happuch actually looked a little relieved, though a good deal excited. They had been standing in the hall while this conversation was running its course.
‘It's all nonsense, Kezia; I am astonished at you!’ said Jemima.
‘Come into the sitting-parlour,’ said Kezia, taking Ralph's hand; ‘we'll not one of us bear any malice if only you tell us all about it.’
Jemima, after severe consideration, at last looked in a curious sidelong way to Ralph.
‘I hope,’ she said, ‘that you have not done anything hasty.’
‘Tuts!’ said Kezia, ‘I hope he has. He was far too slow before he went away. Make love in haste; marry at leisure—that's the right way.’
‘Can I have the essay that you read us last April, on the origin of woman?’ asked Keren-happuch unexpectedly. ‘You won't want it any more, and I should like it.’
Even little Keren-happuch had her feelings.
The three Misses Thriepneuks were a little jealous of one another before, but already they had forgotten this slight feeling, which indeed was no more than the instinct of proprietorship which young women come to feel in one who has never been long out of their house, and with whom they have been brought up.
But in the face of this new interest they lost their jealousy of one another; so that, in place of presenting a united front to the enemy, these three kindly young women, excited at the mere hint of a love-story, vied with one another which should be foremost in interest and sympathy. The blush on Ralph's face spoke its own message, and now, when he was going to speak, his three cousins sat round with eager faces to listen.
‘I have something to tell, girls,’ said Ralph, ‘but I meant to tell it first to my uncle. I have been turned out of the manse of Dullarg, and my father will not allow me to live in his house till after the meeting of the presbytery.’
This was more serious than a love-story, and the bright expression died down into flickering uncertainty in the faces of Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch.
‘It's not anything wrong?’ asked Jemima, anxiously.
‘No, no,’ said Ralph quickly, ‘nothing but what I have reason to be proud enough of. It is only a question of the doctrines and practice of the Marrow kirk—’
‘Oh!’ said all three simultaneously, with an accent of mixed scorn and relief. The whole matter was clear to them now.
‘And of the right of the synod of the Marrow kirk to control my actions,’ continued Ralph.
But the further interest was entirely gone from the question.
‘Tell us about her,’ they said in unison.
‘How do you know it is a 'her'?’ asked Ralph, clumsily trying to put off time, like a man.
Kezia laughed on her own account, Keren-happuch, because Kezia laughed, but Jemima said solemnly:
‘I hope she is of a serious disposition.’
‘Nonsense! I hope she is pretty,’ said Kezia.
‘And I hope she will love me,’ said little Keren-happuch.
Ralph thought a little, and then, as it was growing dark, he sat on the old sofa with his back to the fading day, and told his love-story to these three sweet girls, who, though they had played with him and been all womanhood to him ever since he came out of petticoats, had not a grain of jealousy of the unseen sister who had come suddenly past them and stepped into the primacy of Ralph's life.
When he was half-way through with his tale he suddenly stopped, and said:
‘But I ought to have told all this first to your father, because he may not care to have me in his house. There is only my word for it, after all, and it is the fact that I have not the right to set foot in my own father's house.’
‘We will make our father see it in the right way,’ said Jemima quietly.
‘Yes,’ interposed Kezia, ‘or I would not give sixpence for his peace of mind these next six months.’
‘It is all right if you tell us,’ said little Keren-happuch, who was her father's playmate. Jemima ruled him, Kezia teased him—the privilege of beauty—but it was generally little Keren-happuch who fetched his slippers and sat with her cheek against the back of his hand as he smoked and read in his great wicker chair by the north window.
There was the sound of quick nervous footsteps with an odd halt in their fall on the gravel walk outside. The three girls ran to the door in a tumultuous greeting, even Jemima losing her staidness for the occasion. Ralph could hear only the confused babble of tongues and the expressions, ‘Now you hear, father—’ ‘Now you understand—’ ‘Listen to me, father—’ as one after another took up the tale.
Ralph retold the story that night from the very beginning to the professor, who listened silently, punctuating his thoughts with the puffs of his pipe.
When he had finished, there was an unwonted moisture in the eyes of Professor Thriepneuk—perhaps the memory of a time when he too had gone a-courting.
He stretched the hand which was not occupied with his long pipe to Ralph, who grasped it strongly.
‘You have acted altogether as I could have desired my own son to act; I only wish that I had one like you. Let the Marrow Kirk alone, and come and be my assistant till you see your way a little into the writer's trade. Pens and ink are cheap, and you can take my classes in the summer, and give me quietness to write my book on 'The Abuses of Ut with the Subjunctive.'‘
‘But I must find lodgings—’ interrupted Ralph.
‘You must find nothing—just bide here. It is the house of your nearest kin, and the fittest place for you. Your meat's neither here nor there, and my lasses—’
‘They are the best and kindest in the world,’ said Ralph.
The professor glanced at him with a sharp, quizzical look under his eyebrows. He seemed as if he were about to say something, and then thought better of it and did not. Perhaps he also had had his illusions.
As Ralph was going to his room that night Kezia met him at the head of the stairs. She came like a flash from nowhere in particular.
‘Good-night, Ralph,’ she said; ‘give your Winsome a kiss from me— the new kind—like this!’
Then Kezia vanished, and Ralph was left wondering, with his candle in his hand.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.