chapter twenty six
SUCH SWEET PERIL
Winsome looked away down the glen, and strove to harden her face into a superhuman indignation.
‘That he should dare—the idea!’
But it so happened that the idea so touched that rare gift of humour, and the picture of herself looking at Ralph Peden solemnly with one eye at a time, in order at once to spare his susceptibilities and give the other a rest, was too much for her. She laughed a peal of rippling merriment that sent all the blackbirds indignant out of their copses at the infringement of their prerogative.
Ralph's humour was slower and a little grimmer than Winsome's, whose sunny nature had blossomed out amid the merry life of the woods and streams. But there was a sternness in both of them as well, that was of the heather and the moss hags. And that would in due time come out. It is now their day of love and bounding life. And there are few people in this world who would not be glad to sit just so at the opening of the flower of love. Indeed, it was hardly necessary to tell one another.
Laughter, say the French (who think that their l'amour is love, and so will never know anything), kills love. But not the kind of laughter that rang in the open dell which peeped like the end of a great green-lined prospect glass upon the glimmering levels of Loch Grannoch; nor yet the kind of love which in alternate currents pulsed to and fro between the two young people who sat so demurely on either side of the great, many-spiked fir-branch.
‘Is not this nice?’ said Winsome, shrugging her shoulders contentedly and swinging her feet.
Their laughter made them better friends than before. The responsive gladness in each other's eyes seemed part of the midsummer stillness of the afternoon. Above, a red squirrel dropped the husks of larch tassels upon them, and peered down upon them with his bright eyes. He was thinking himself of household duties, and had his own sweetheart safe at home, nestling in the bowl of a great beech deep in the bowering wood by the loch.
‘I liked to hear you speak of your father today,’ said Winsome, still swinging her feet girlishly. ‘It must be a great delight to have a father to go to. I never remember father or mother.’
Her eyes were looking straight before her now, and a depth of tender wistfulness in them went to Ralph's heart. He was beginning to hate the branch.
‘My father,’ he said, ‘is often stern to others, but he has never been stern to me—always helpful, full of tenderness and kindness. Perhaps that is because I lost my mother almost before I can remember.’
Winsome's wet eyes, with the lashes curving long over the under side of the dark-blue iris, were turned full on him now with the tenderness of a kindred pity.
‘Do you know I think that your father was once kind to my mother. Grandmother began once to tell me, and then all at once would tell me no more—I think because grandfather was there.’
‘I did not know that my father ever knew your mother,’ answered Ralph.
‘Of course, he would never tell you if he did,’ said the woman of experience, sagely; ‘but grandmother has a portrait in an oval miniature of your father as a young man, and my mother's name is on the back of it.’
‘Her maiden name?’ queried Ralph.
Winsome Charteris nodded. Then she said wistfully: ‘I wish I knew all about it. I think it is very hard that grandmother will not tell me!’
Then, after a silence which a far-off cuckoo filled in with that voice of his which grows slower and fainter as the midsummer heats come on, Winsome said abruptly, ‘Is your father ever hard and—unkind?’
Ralph started to his feet as if hastily to defend his father. There was something in Winsome's eyes that made him sit down again—something shining and tender and kind.
‘My father,’ he said, ‘is very silent and reserved, as I fear I too have been till I came down here,’ (he meant to say, ‘Till I met you, dear,’ but he could not manage it), ‘but he is never hard or unkind, except perhaps on matters connected with the Marrow kirk and its order and discipline. Then he becomes like a stone, and has no pity for himself or any. I remember him once forbidding me to come into the study, and compelling me to keep my own garret- room for a month, for saying that I did not see much difference between the Marrow kirk and the other kirks. But I am sure he could never be unkind or hurtful to any one in the world. But why do you ask, Mistress Winsome?’
‘Because—because—’ she paused, looking down now, the underwells of her sweet eyes brimming to the overflow—‘because something grandfather said once, when he was very ill, made me wonder if your father had ever been unkind to my mother.’
Two great tears overflowed from under the dark lashes and ran down Winsome's cheek. Ralph was on the right side of the branch now, and, strangely enough, Winsome did not seem to notice it. He had a lace-edged handkerchief in his hand which had been his mother's, and all that was loving and chivalrous in his soul was stirred at the sight of a woman's tears. He had never seen them before, and there is nothing so thrilling in the world to a young man. Gently, with a light, firm hand, he touched Winsome's cheek, instinctively murmuring tenderness which no one had ever used to him since that day long ago, when his mother had hung, with the love of a woman who knows that she must give up all, over the cot of a boy whose future she could not foresee.
For a thrilling moment Winsome's golden coronet of curls touched his breast, and, as he told himself after long years, rested willingly there while his heart beat at least ten times. Unfortunately, it did not take long to beat ten times.
One moment more, and without any doubt Ralph would have taken Winsome in his arms. But the girl, with that inevitable instinct which tells a woman when her waist or her lips are in danger— matters upon which no woman is ever taken by surprise, whatever she may pretend—drew quietly back. The time was not yet.
‘Indeed, you must not, you must not think of me. You must go away. You know that there are only pain and danger before us if you come to see me any more.’
‘Indeed, I do not know anything of the kind. I am sure that my father could never be unkind to any creature, and I am certain that he was not to your mother. But what has he to do with us, Winsome?’
Her name sounded so perilously sweet to her, said thus in Ralph's low voice, that once again her eyes met his in that full, steady gaze which tells heart secrets and brings either life-long joys or unending regrets. Nor—as we look—can we tell which?
‘I cannot speak to you now, Ralph,’ she said, ‘but I know that you ought not to come to see me any more. There must be something strange and wicked about me. I feel that there is a cloud over me, Ralph, and I do not want you to come under it.’
At the first mention of his name from the lips of his beloved, Ralph drew very close to her, with that instinctive drawing which he was now experiencing. It was that irresistible first love of a man who has never wasted himself even on the harmless flirtations which are said to be the embassies of love.
But Winsome moved away from him, walking down towards the mouth of the linn, through the thickly wooded glen, and underneath the overarching trees, with their enlacing lattice-work of curving boughs.
‘It is better not,’ she said, almost pleadingly, for her strength was failing her. She almost begged him to be merciful.
‘But you believe that I love you, Winsome?’ he persisted.
Low in her heart of hearts Winsome believed it. Her ear drank in every word. She was silent only because she was thirsty to hear more. But Ralph feared that he had fatally offended her.
‘Are you angry with me, Winsome?’ he said, bending from his masculine height to look under the lilac sunbonnet.
Winsome shook her head. ‘Not angry, Ralph, only sorry to the heart.’
She stopped and turned round to him. She held out a hand, when Ralph took it in both of his. There was in the touch a determination to keep the barriers slight but sure between them. He felt it and understood.
‘Listen, Ralph,’ she said, looking at him with shining eyes, in which another man would have read the love, ‘I want you to understand. There is a fate about those who love me. My mother died long ago; my father I never knew; my grandfather and grandmother are—what you know, because of me; Mr. Welsh, at the Manse, who used to love me and pet me when I was a little girl, now does not speak to me. There is a dark cloud all about me!’ said Winsome sadly, yet bravely and determinedly.
Yet she looked as bright and sunshiny as her own name, as if God had just finished creating her that minute, and had left the Sabbath silence of thanksgiving in her eyes. Ralph Peden may be forgiven if he did not attend much to what she said. As long as Winsome was in the world, he would love her just the same, whatever she said.
‘What the cloud is I cannot tell,’ she went on; ‘but my grandfather once said that it would break on whoever loved me— and—and I do not want that one to be you.’
Ralph, who had kept her hand a willing prisoner, close and warm in his, would have come nearer to her.
He said: ‘Winsome, dear’ (the insidious wretch! he thought that, because she was crying, she would not notice the addition, but she did)— ‘Winsome, dear, if there be a cloud, it is better that it should break over two than over one.’
‘But not over you,’ she said, with a soft accent, which should have been enough, for any one, but foolish Ralph was already fixed on his own next words:
‘If you have few to love you, let me be the one who will love you all the time and altogether. I am not afraid; there will be two of us against the world, dear.’
Winsome faltered. She had not been wooed after this manner before. It was perilously sweet. Little ticking pulses beat in her head. A great yearning came to her to let herself drift up on a sea of love. That love of giving up all, which is the precious privilege, the saving dowry or utter undoing of women, surged in upon her heart.
She drew away her hand, not quickly, but slowly and firmly, and as if she meant it. ‘I have come to a decision—I have made a vow,’ she said. She paused, and looked at Ralph a little defiantly, hoping that he would take the law into his own hands, and forbid the decision and disallow the vow.
But Ralph was not yet enterprising enough, and took her words a little too seriously. He only stood looking at her and waiting, as if her decision were to settle the fate of kingdoms.
Then Winsome emitted the declaration which has been so often made, at which even the more academic divinities are said to smile, ‘I am resolved never to marry!’
An older man would have laughed. He might probably have heard something like this before. But Ralph had no such experience, and he bowed his head as to an invincible fate—for which stupidity Winsome's grandmother would have boxed his ears.
‘But I may still love you, Winsome?’ he said, very quietly and gently.
‘Oh, no, you must not—you must not love me! Indeed, you must not think of me any more. You must go away.’
‘Go away I can and will, if you say so, Winsome; but even you do not believe that I can forget you when I like.’
‘And you will go away?’ said Winsome, looking at him with eyes that would have chained a Stoic philosopher to the spot.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, perjuring his intentions.
‘And you will not try to see me any more—you promise?’ she added, a little spiteful at the readiness with which he gave his word.
So Ralph made a promise. He succeeded in keeping it just twenty- four hours—which was, on the whole, very creditable, considering.
What else he might have promised we cannot tell—certainly anything else asked of him so long as Winsome continued to look at him.
Those who have never made just such promises, or listened to them being made—occupations equally blissful and equally vain—had better pass this chapter by. It is not for the uninitiated. But it is true, nevertheless.
So in silence they walked down to the opening of the glen. As they turned into the broad expanse of glorious sunshine the shadows were beginning to slant towards them. Loch Grannoch was darkening into pearl grey, under the lee of the hill. Down by the high- backed bridge, which sprang at a bound over the narrows of the lane, there was a black patch on the greensward, and the tripod of the gipsy pot could faintly be distinguished.
Ralph, who had resumed Winsome's hand as a right, pointed it out. It is strange how quickly pleasant little fashions of that kind tend to perpetuate themselves!
As Winsome's grandmother would have said, ‘It's no easy turnin' a coo when she gets the gate o' the corn.’
Winsome looked at the green patch and the dark spot upon it. ‘Tell me,’ she said, looking up at him, ‘why you ran away that day?’
Ralph Peden was nothing if not frank. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I thought you were going to take off your stockings!’
Through the melancholy forebodings which Winsome had so recently exhibited there rose the contagious blossom of mirth, that never could be long away even from such a fate-harassed creature as Winsome Charteris considered herself to be. ‘Poor fellow,’ she said, ‘you must indeed have been terribly frightened!’
‘I was,’ said Ralph Peden, with conviction. ‘But I do not think I should feel quite the same about it now!’
They walked silently to the foot of the Craig Ronald loaning, where by mutual consent they paused.
Winsome's hand was still in Ralph's. She had forgotten to take it away. She was, however, still resolved to do her duty.
‘Now you are sure you are not going to think of me any more?’ she asked.
‘Quite sure,’ said Ralph, promptly.
Winsome looked a little disappointed at the readiness of the answer. ‘And you won't try to see me any more?’ she asked, plaintively.
‘Certainly not,’ replied Ralph, who had some new ideas.
Winsome looked still more disappointed. This was not what she had expected.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, ‘because I shall not need to think of you again, for I shall never stop thinking of you; and I shall not try to see you again, because I know I shall. I shall go away, but I shall come back again; and I shall never give you up, though every friend forbid and every cloud in the heavens break!’
The gladness broke into his love's face in spite of all her gallant determination.
‘But remember,’ said Winsome, ‘I am never going to marry. On that point I am quite determined.’
‘You can forbid me marrying you, Winsome dear,’ said Ralph, ‘but you cannot help me loving you.’
Indeed on this occasion and on this point of controversy Winsome did not betray any burning desire to contradict him. She gave him her hand—still with the withholding power in it, however, which told Ralph that his hour was not yet come.
He bowed and kissed it—once, twice, thrice. And to him who had never kissed woman before in the way of love, it was more than many caresses to one more accustomed.
Then she took her way, carrying her hand by her side tingling with consciousness. It seemed as if Ebie Farrish, who was at the watering-stone as she passed, could read what was written upon it as plain as an advertisement. She put it, therefore, into the lilac sunbonnet and so passed by.
Ralph watched her as she glided, a tall and graceful young figure, under the archway of the trees, till he could no longer see her light dress glimmering through the glades of the scattered oaks.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.