chapter twenty nine
THE DARK OF THE MOON AT THE GRANNOCH BRIDGE
Over the manse of Dullarg, still and grey, with only the two men in it; over the low-walled rectangular farm steading of Craig Ronald, fell alike the midsummer night. Ten o'clock on an early July evening is in Galloway but a modified twilight. But as the sun went down behind the pines he sent an angry gleam athwart the green braes. The level cloud-band into which he plunged drew itself upward to the zenith, and, like the eyelid of a gigantic eye, shut down as though God in his heaven were going to sleep, and the world was to be left alone.
It was the dark of the moon, and even if there had been full moon its light would have been as completely shut out by the cloud canopy as was the mild diffusion of the blue-grey twilight. So it happened that, as Ralph Peden took his way to his first love-tryst, it was all that he could do to keep the path, so dark had it become. But there was no rain—hardly yet even the hint or promise of rain.
Yet under the cloud there was a great solitariness—the murmur of a land where no man had come since the making of the world. Down in the sedges by the lake a blackcap sang sweetly, waesomely, the nightingale of Scotland. Far on the moors a curlew cried out that its soul was lost. Nameless things whinnied in the mist-filled hollows. On the low grounds there lay a white mist knee-deep, and Ralph Peden waded in it as in a shallow sea. So in due time he came near to the place of his tryst.
Never had he stood so before. He stilled the beating of his heart with his hand, so loud and riotous it was in that silent place. He could hear, loud as an insurrection, the quick, unequal double- knocking in his bosom.
A grasshopper, roosting on a blade of grass beneath, his feet, tumbled off and gave vent to his feelings in a belated ‘chirr.’ Overhead somewhere a raven croaked dismally and cynically at intervals. Ralph's ears heard these things as he waited, with every sense on the alert, at the place of his love-tryst.
He thrilled with the subtle hope of strange possibilities. A mill-race of pictures of things sweet and precious ran through his mind. He saw a white-spread table, with Winsome seated opposite to himself, tall, fair, and womanly, the bright heads of children between them. And the dark closed in. Again he saw Winsome with her head on his arm, standing looking out on the sunrise from the hilltop, whence they had watched it not so long ago. The thought brought him to his pocket-book. He took it out, and in the darkness touched his lips to the string of the lilac sunbonnet. It surely must be past ten now, he thought. Would she not come? He had, indeed, little right to ask her, and none at all to expect her. Yet he had her word of promise—one precious line. What would he say to her when she came? He would leave that to be settled when his arms were about her. But perhaps she would be colder than before. They would sit, he thought, on the parapet of the bridge. There were no fir-branches to part them with intrusive spikes. So much at least should be his.
But then, again, she might not come at all! What more likely than that she had been detained by her grandmother? How could he expect it? Indeed, he told himself he did not expect it. He had come out here because it was a fine night, and the night air cooled his brain for his studies. His heart, hammering on his life's anvil, contradicted him. He could not have repeated the Hebrew alphabet. His head, bent a little forward in the agony of listening, whirled madly round; the ambient darkness surrounding all.
There! He heard a footstep. There was a light coming down the avenue under the elders. At last! No, it was only the glow-worms under the leaves, shining along the grass by the wayside. The footstep was but a restless sheep on the hillside. Then some one coughed, with the suppressed sound of one who covers his mouth with his hand. Ralph was startled, but almost laughed to think that it was still only the lamb on the other side of the wall moving restlessly about in act to feed. Time and again the blood rushed to his temples, for he was sure that he heard her coming to him. But it was only the echo of the blood surging blindly through his own veins, or some of the night creatures fulfilling their love-trysts, and seeking their destinies under the cloud of night.
Suddenly his whole soul rose in revolt against him. Certainly now he heard a light and swift footstep. There was a darker shape coming towards him against the dim, faint grey glimmer of the loch. It was his love, and she had come out to him at his bidding. He had dreamed of an angel, and lo! now he should touch her in the hollow night, and find that she was a warm, breathing woman.
Wrapped from head to foot in a soft close shawl, she came to him. He could see her now, but only as something darker against the canopy of the night. So, in the blissful dark, which makes lovers brave, he opened his arms to receive her. For the first time in his life he drew them to him again not empty.
The thrill electric of the contact, the yielding quiescence of the girl whom he held to his breast, stilled his heart's tumultuous beating. She raised her head, and their lips drew together into a long kiss. What was this thing? It was a kiss in which he tasted a strange alien flavour even through the passion of it. A sense of wrong and disappointment flowed round Ralph's heart. So on the bridge in the darkness, where many lovers had stood ever since the first Pict trysted his dark-browed bride by the unbridged water, the pair stood very still. They only breathed each other's breath. Something familiar struck on Ralph's senses. He seemed to be standing silent in the parlour at Craig Ronald—not here, with his arms round his love—and somehow between them there rose unmistakable the perfume of the flower which for an hour he had carried in his coat on the day that he and she went a-fishing.
‘Beloved,’ he said tenderly, looking down, ‘you are very good to me to come!’
For all reply a face was held close pressed to his. The mists of night had made her cheek damp. He passed his hand across the ripples of her hair. Half hidden by the shawl he could feel the crisping of the curls under his fingers.
It was harder in texture than he had fancied Winsome's hair would be. He half smiled that he had time at such a moment to think such a thing. It was strange, however. He had thought a woman's hair was like floss silk—at least Winsome's, for he had theorized about none other.
‘Winsome, dear!’ he said, again bending his head to look down, ‘I have to go far away, and I wanted to tell you. You are not angry with me, sweetest, for asking you to come? I could not go without bidding you good-bye, and in the daytime I might not have seen you alone. You know that I love you with all my life and all my heart. And you love me—at least a little. Tell me, beloved!’
Still there was no answer. Ralph waited with some certitude and ease from pain, for indeed the clasping arms told him all he wished to know.
There was a brightness low down in the west. Strangely and slowly the gloomy eyelid of cloud which had fallen athwart the evening lifted for a moment its sullen fringe; a misty twilight of lurid light flowed softly over the land. The shawl fell back like a hood from off the girl's shoulders. She looked up throbbing and palpitating. Ralph Peden was clasping Jess Kissock in his arms. She had kept her word. He had kissed her of his own free will, and that within a day. Her heart rejoiced over Winsome. ‘So much, at least, she cannot take from me.’
Ralph Peden's heart stopped beating for a tremendous interval of seconds. Then the dammed-back blood-surge drave thundering in his ears. He swayed, and would have fallen but for the parapet of the bridge and the clinging arms about his neck. All his nature and love in full career stopped dead. The shock almost unhinged his soul and reason. It was still so dark that, though he could see the outline of her head and the paleness of her face, nothing held him but the intense and vivid fascination of her eyes. Ralph would have broken away, indignant and amazed, but her arms and eyes held him close prisoner, the dismayed turmoil in his own heart aiding.
‘Yes, Ralph Peden,’ Jess Kissock said, cleaving to him, ‘and you hate me because it is I and not another. You think me a wicked girl to come to you in her place. But you called her because you loved her, and I have come because I loved you as much. Have I not as much right? Do not dream that I came for aught but that. Have I not as good a right to love as you?’
She prisoned his face fiercely between her hands, and held him off from her as if to see into his soul by the light of the lingering lake of ruddy light low in the west.
‘In your Bible where is there anything that hinders a woman from loving? Yet I know you will despise me for loving you, and hate me for coming in her place.’
‘I do not hate you!’ said Ralph, striving to go without rudely unclasping the girl's hands. Her arms fell instantly again about his neck, locking themselves behind.
‘No, you shall not go till you have heard all, and then you can cast me into the loch as a worthless thing that you are better rid of.’
Through his disappointment and his anger, Ralph was touched. He would have spoken, but the girl went on:
‘No, you do not hate me—I am not worth it. You despise me, and do you think that is any better? I am only a cottar's child. I have been but a waiting-maid. But I have read how maids have loved the kings and the kings loved them. Yes, I own it. I am proud of it. I have schemed and lain awake at nights for this. Why should I not love you? Others have loved me without asking my leave. Why should I ask yours? And love came to me without your leave or my own that day on the road when you let me carry your books.’
She let her arms drop from his neck and buried her face in her hands, sobbing now with very genuine tears. Ralph could not yet move away, even though no longer held by the stringent coercion of this girl's arms. He was too grieved, too suddenly and bitterly disappointed to have any fixed thought or resolve. But the good man does not live who can listen unmoved to the despairing catch of the sobbing in a woman's throat. Then on his hands, which he had clasped before him, he felt the steady rain of her tears; his heart went out in a great pity for this wayward girl who was baring her soul to him.
The whole note and accent of her grief was of unmistakable feeling. Jess Kissock had begun in play, but her inflammable nature kindled easily into real passion. For at least that night, by the bridge of the Grannoch water, she believed that her heart was broken.
Ralph put his hand towards her with some unformed idea of sympathy. He murmured vague words of comfort, as he might have done to a wailing child that had hurt itself; but he had no idea how to still the tempestuous grief of a passion-pale woman.
Suddenly Jess Kissock slipped down and clasped him about the knees. Her hair had broken from its snood and streamed a cloud of intense blackness across her shoulders. He could see her only weirdly and vaguely, as one may see another by the red light of a wood ember in the darkness. She seemed like a beautiful, pure angel, lost by some mischance, praying to him out of the hollow pit of the night.
‘I carried your burden for you once, the day I first saw you. Let me carry your burden for you across the world. If you will not love me, let me but serve you. I would slave so hard! See, I am strong—’
She seized his hands, gripping thorn till his fingers clave together with the pressure.
‘See how I love you!’ her hands seemed to say. Then she kissed his hands, wetting them with the downfalling of her tears.
The darkness settled back thicker than before. He could not see the kneeling woman whose touch he felt. He strove to think what he should do, his emotions and his will surging in a troubled maelstrom about his heart.
But just then, from out of the darkness high on the unseen hill above them, there came a cry—a woman's cry of pain, anger, and ultimate danger: ‘Ralph, Ralph, come to me—come!’ it seemed to say to him. Again and again it came, suddenly faltered and was silenced as if smothered—as though a hand had been laid across a mouth that cried and would not be silent.
Ralph sprang clear of Jess Kissock in a moment. He knew the voice. He would have known it had it come to him across the wreck of worlds. It was his love's voice. She was calling to him—Ralph Peden—for help. Without a thought for the woman whose despairing words he had just listened to, he turned and ran, plunging into the thick darkness of the woods, hillward in the direction of the cry. But he had not gone far when another cry was heard—not the cry of a woman this time, but the shorter, shriller, piercing yell of a man at the point of death—some deadly terror at his throat, choking him. Mixed with this came also unearthly, wordless, inhuman howlings, as of a wild beast triumphing. For a dozen seconds these sounds dominated the night. Then upon the hill they seemed to sink into a moaning, and a long, low cry, like the whining of a beaten dog. Lights gleamed about the farm, and Ralph could vaguely see, as he sprang out of the ravine, along which he and Winsome had walked, dark forms flitting about with lanterns. In another moment he was out on the moor, ranging about like a wild, questing hound, seeking the cause of the sudden and hideous outcry.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.