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.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.