Chapter twenty three
CONCERNING JOHN BAIRDIESON
‘Guid e'en to ye, Maister Ralph,’ said the gay old lady within, as soon as she caught sight of Ralph. ‘Keep up yer heid, man, an' walk like a Gilchrist. Ye look as dowie as a yow that has lost her lammie.’
Walter Skirving from his arm-chair gave this time no look of recognition. He yielded his hand to Ralph, who raised it clay- chill and heavy even in the act to shake. When he let it drop, the old man held up his palm and looked at it.
‘Hae ye gotten aneuch guid Gallawa' lear to learn ye no to rin awa frae a bonny lass yet, Maister Ralph?’ said the old lady briskly. She had not many jokes save with Winsome and Meg, and she rode one hard when she came by it.
But no reply was needed.
‘Aye, aye, weelna,’ meditated the old lady, leaning back and folding her hands like a mediaeval saint of worldly tendencies, ‘tell me aboot your faither.’ ‘He is very robust and strong in health of body,’ said Ralph.
‘Ye leeve in Edinbra'?’ said the old lady, with a rising inflection of inquiry.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, ‘we live in James's Court. My father likes to be among his people.’
‘Faith na, a hantle o' braw folk hae leeved in James's Court in their time. I mind o' the Leddy Partan an' Mistress Girnigo, the king's jeweller's wife haein' a fair even-doon fecht a' aboot wha was to hae the pick o' the hooses on the stair.—Winifred, ma lassie, come here an' sit doon! Dinna gang flichterin' in an' oot, but bide still an' listen to what Maister Peden has to tell us aboot his farther.’
Winsome came somewhat slowly and reluctantly towards the side of her grandmother's chair. There she sat holding her hand, and looking across the room towards the window where, motionless and abstracted, Walter Skirving, who was once so bold and strong, dreamed his life away.
‘I hardly know what to tell you first,’ said Ralph, hesitatingly.
‘Hoot, tell me gin your faither and you bide thegither withoot ony woman body, did I no hear that yince; is that the case na?’ demanded the lady of Craig Ronald with astonishing directness.
‘It is true enough,’ said Ralph, smiling, ‘but then we have with us my father's old Minister's Man, John Bairdieson. John has us both in hands and keeps us under fine. He was once a sailor, and cook on a vessel in his wild days; but when he was converted by falling from the top of a main yard into a dock (as he tells himself), he took the faith in a somewhat extreme form. But that does not affect his cooking. He is as good as a woman in a house.’
‘An' that's a lee,’ said the old lady. ‘The best man's no as guid as the warst woman in a hoose!’
Winsome did not appear to be listening. Of what interest could such things be to her?
Her grandmother was by no means satisfied with Ralph's report. ‘But that's nae Christian way for folk to leeve, withoot a woman o' ony kind i' the hoose—it's hardly human!’
‘But I can assure you, Mistress Skirving, that, in spite of what you say, John Bairdieson does very well for us. He is, however, terribly jealous of women coming about. He does not allow one of them within the doors. He regards them fixedly through the keyhole before opening, and when he does open, his usual greeting to them is, 'Noo get yer message dune an' be gaun!'‘
The lady of Craig Ronald laughed a hearty laugh.
‘Gin I cam' to veesit ye I wad learn him mainners! But what does he do,’ she continued, ‘when some of the dames of good standing in the congregation call on your faither? Does he treat them in this cavalier way?’
‘In that case,’ said Ralph, ‘John listens at my father's door to hear if he is stirring. If there be no sign, John says, 'The minister's no in, mem, an' I could not say for certain when he wull be!' Once my father came out and caught him in the act, and when he charged John with telling a deliberate lie to a lady, John replied, 'A'weel, it'll tak' a lang while afore we mak' up for the aipple!'‘
It is believed that John Bairdieson here refers to Eve's fatal gift to Adam.
‘John Bairdieson is an ungallant man. It'll be from him that ye learned to rin awa',’ retorted the old lady.
‘Grandmother,’ interrupted Winsome, who had suffered quite enough from this, ‘Master Peden has come to see you, and to ask how you find yourself today.’
‘Aye, aye, belike, belike—but Maister Ralph Peden has the power o' his tongue, an' gin that be his errand he can say as muckle for himsel'. Young fowk are whiles rale offeecious!’ she said, turning to Ralph with the air of an appeal to an equal from the unaccountabilities of a child.
Winsome lifted some stray flowers that Jess Kissock had dropped when she sped out of the room, and threw them out of the window with an air of disdain. This to some extent relieved her, and she felt better. It surprised Ralph, however, who, being wholly innocent and unembarrassed by the recent occurrence, wondered vaguely why she did it.
‘Noo tell me mair aboot your faither,’ continued Mistress Skirving. ‘I canna mak' oot whaur the Marrow pairt o' ye comes in —I suppose when ye tak' to rinnin' awa'.’
‘Grandmammy, your pillows are not comfortable; let me sort them for you.’
Winsome rose and touched the old lady's surroundings in a manner that to Ralph was suggestive of angels turning over the white- bosomed clouds. Then Ralph looked at his pleasant querist to find out if he were expected to go on. The old lady nodded to him with an affectionate look.
‘Well,’ said Ralph, ‘my father is like nobody else. I have missed my mother, of course, but my father has been like a mother for tenderness to me.’
‘Yer grandfaither, auld Ralph Gilchrist, was sore missed. There was thanksgiving in the parish for three days after he died!’ said the old lady by way of an anticlimax.
Winsome looked very much as if she wished to say something, which brought down her grandmother's wrath upon her.
‘Noo, lassie, is't you or me that's haein' a veesit frae this young man? Ye telled me juist the noo that he had come to see me. Then juist let us caa' oor cracks, an' say oor says in peace.’
Thus admonished, Winsome was silent. But for the first time she looked at Ralph with a smile that had half an understanding in it, which made that yonng man's heart leap. He answered quite at random for the next few moments.
‘About my father—yes, he always takes up the Bibles when John Bairdieson preaches.’
‘What!’ said the old lady.
‘I mean, John Bairdieson takes up the Bibles for him when he preaches, and as he shuts the door, John says over the railing in a whisper,'Noo, dinna be losin' the Psalms, as ye did this day three weeks'; or perhaps,'Be canny on this side o' the poopit; the hinge is juist pitten on wi' putty;' whiles John will walk half-way down the kirk, and then turn to see if my father has sat quietly down according to instructions. This John has always done since the day when some inward communing overcame my father before he began his sermon, and he stood up in the pulpit without saying a word till the people thought that he was in direct communion with the Almighty.’
‘There was nane o' thae fine abstractions aboot your grandfaither, Ralph Gilchrist—na, whiles he was taen sae that he couldna speak he was that mad, an' aye he gat redder an' redder i' the face, till yince he gat vent, and then the ill words ran frae him like the Skyreburn in spate.’
‘What else did John Bairdieson say to yer faither?’ asked Winsome, for the first time that day speaking humanly to Ralph.
That young man looked gratefully at her, as if she had suddenly dowered him with a fortune. Then he paused to try (because he was very young and foolish) to account for the unaccountability of womankind.
He endeavoured to recollect what it was that he had said and what John Bairdieson had said, but with indifferent success. He could not remember what he was talking about.
‘John Bairdieson said—John Bairdieson said—It has clean gone out of my mind what John Bairdieson said,’ replied Ralph with much shamefacedness.
The old lady looked at him approvingly. ‘Ye're no a Whig. There's guid bluid in ye,’ she said, irrelevantly.
‘Yes, I do remember now,’ broke in Ralph eagerly. ‘I remember what John Bairdieson said. 'Sit doon, minister,' he said, 'gin yer ready to flee up to the blue bauks';’ ‘'there's a heap o' folk in this congregation that's no juist sae ready yet.'’
Ralph saw that Winsome and her grandmother were both genuinely interested in his father.
‘Ye maun mind that I yince kenned yer faither as weel as e'er I kenned a son o' mine, though it's mony an' mony a year sin' he was i' this hoose.’ Winsome looked curiously at her grandmother. ‘Aye, lassie,’ she said, ‘ye may look an' look, but the faither o' him there cam as near to bein' your ain faither—’
Walter Skirving, swathed in his chair, turned his solemn and awful face from the window, as though called back to life by his wife's words. ‘Silence, woman!’ he thundered.
But Mistress Skirving did not look in the least put out; only she was discreetly silent for a minute or two after her husband had spoken, as was her wont, and then she proceeded:
‘Aye, brawly I kenned Gilbert Peden, when he used to come in at that door, wi' his black curls ower his broo as crisp an' bonny as his son's the day.’
Winsome looked at the door with an air of interest. ‘Did he come to see you, grandmammy?’ she asked.
‘Aye, aye, what else?—juist as muckle as this young man here comes to see me. I had the word o' baith o' them for't. Ralph Peden says that he comes to see me, an' sae did the faither o' him—’
Again Mistress Skirving paused, for she was aware that her husband had turned on her one of his silent looks.
‘Drive on aboot yer faither an' John Rorrison,’ she said; ‘it's verra entertainin'.’
‘Bairdieson,’ said Winsome, correctingly.
Ralph, now reassured that he was interesting Winsome as well, went on more briskly. Winsome had slipped down beside her grandmother, and had laid her arm across her grandmother's knees till the full curve of her breast touched the spare outlines of the elder woman. Ralph wondered if Winsome would ever in the years to come be like her grandmother. He thought that he could love her a thousand times more then.
‘My father,’ said Ralph, ‘is a man much beloved by his congregation, for he is a very father to them in all their troubles; but they give him a kind of adoration in return that would not be good for any other kind of man except my father. They think him no less than infallible. 'Dinna mak' a god o' yer minister,' he tells them, but they do it all the same.’
Winsome looked as if she did not wonder.
‘When I kenned yer faither,’ said the old dame, ‘he wad hae been nocht the waur o' a pickle mair o' the auld Adam in him. It's a rale usefu' commodity in this life—’
‘Why, grandmother—’ began Winsome.
‘Noo, lassie, wull ye haud yer tongue? I'm sair deeved wi' the din o' ye! Is there ony yae thing that a body may say withoot bein' interruptit? Gin it's no you wi' yer 'Grandmither!' like a cheepin' mavis, it's him ower by lookin' as if ye had dung doon the Bible an' selled yersel' to Sawtan. I never was in sic a hoose. A body canna get their tongue rinnin' easy an' comfortable like, but it's 'Woman, silence!' in a voice as graund an' awfu' as 'The Lord said unto Moses'—or else you wi' yer Englishy peepin' tongue, 'Gran'mither!' as terrible shockit like as if a body were gaun intil the kirk on Sabbath wi' their stockin's doon aboot their ankles!’
The little outburst seemed mightily to relieve the old lady. Neither of the guilty persons made any signs, save that Winsome extended her elbow across her grandmother's knee, and poised a dimpled chin on her hand, smiling as placidly and contentedly as if her relative's words had been an outburst of admiration. The old woman looked sternly at her for a moment. Then she relented, and her hand stole among the girl's clustering curls. The little burst of temper gave way to a semi-humorous look of feigned sternness.
‘Ye're a thankless madam,’ she said, shaking her white-capped head; ‘maybe ye think that the fifth commandment says nocht aboot grandmithers; but ye'll be tamed some day, my woman. Mony's the gamesome an' hellicat lassie that I hae seen brocht to hersel', an' her wings clippit like a sea-gull's i' the yaird, tethered by the fit wi' a family o' ten or a dizzen—’
Winsome rose and marched out of the room with all the dignity of offended youth at the suggestion. The old lady laughed a hearty laugh, in which, however, Ralph did not join.
‘Sae fine an' Englishy the ways o' folk noo,’ she went on; ‘ye mauna say this, ye mauna mention that; dear sirse me, I canna mind them a'. I'm ower auld a Pussy Bawdrons to learn new tricks o' sayin' 'miauw' to the kittlins. But for a' that an' a' that, I haena noticed that the young folk are mair particular aboot what they do nor they waur fifty years since. Na, but they're that nice they manna say this and they canna hear that.’
The old lady had got so far when by the sound of retreating footsteps she judged that Winsome was out of hearing. Instantly she changed her tone.
‘But, young man,’ she said, shaking her finger at him as if she expected a contradiction, ‘mind you, there's no a lass i' twunty parishes like this lassie o' mine. An' dinna think that me an' my guidman dinna ken brawly what's bringin' ye to Craig Ronald. Noo, it's richt an' better nor richt—for ye're yer faither's son, an' we baith wuss ye weel. But mind you that there's sorrow comin' to us a'. Him an' me here has had oor sorrows i' the past, deep buried for mair nor twenty year.’
‘I thank you with all my heart,’ said Ralph, earnestly. ‘I need not tell you, after what I have said, that I would lay my life down as a very little thing to pleasure Winsome Charteris. I love her as I never thought that woman could be loved, and I am not the kind to change.’
‘The faither o' ye didna change, though his faither garred him mairry a Gilchrist an' a guid bit lass she was. But for a' that he didna change. Na, weel do I ken that he didna change.’
‘But,’ continued Ralph, ‘I have no reason in the world to imagine that Winsome thinks a thought about me. On the contrary, I have some reason to fear that she dislikes my person; and I would not be troublesome to her—’
‘Hoot toot! laddie, dinna let the Whig bluid mak' a pulin' bairn o' ye. Surely ye dinna expect a lass o' speerit to jump at the thocht o' ye, or drap intil yer moo' like a black-ripe cherry aff a tree i' the orchard. Gae wa' wi' ye, man! what does a blithe young man o' mettle want wi' encouragement—encouragement, fie!’
‘Perhaps you can tell me—’ faltered Ralph. ‘I thought—’
‘Na, na, I can tell ye naething; ye maun juist find oot for yersel', as a young man should. Only this I wull say, it's only a cauldrife Whigamore that wad tak' 'No' for an answer. Mind ye that gin the forbears o' the daddy o' ye was on the wrang side o' Bothwell Brig that day—an' guid Westland bluid they spilt, nae doot, Whigs though they waur—there's that in ye that rode doon the West Port wi' Clavers, an' cried:
'Up wi' the bonnets o' bonny Dundee!'‘
‘I know,’ said Ralph with some of the stiff sententiousness which he had not yet got rid of, ‘that I am not worthy of your granddaughter in any respect—’
‘My certes, no,’ said the sharp-witted dame, ‘for ye're a man, an' it's a guid blessin' that you men dinna get your deserts, or it wad be a puir lookoot for the next generation, young man. Gae wa' wi' ye, man; mind ye, I'll no' say a word in yer favour, but raither the ither way—whilk,’ smiled Mistress Skirving in the deep still way that she sometimes had in the midst of her liveliness, ‘whilk will maybe do ye mair guid. But I'm speakin' for my guid-man when I say that ye hae oor best guid-wull. We think that ye are a true man, as yer faither was, though sorely he was used by this hoose. It wad maybes be some amends,’ she added, as if to herself.
Then the dear old lady touched her eyes with a fine handkerchief which she took out of a little black reticule basket on the table by her side.
As Ralph rose reverently and kissed her hand before retiring, Walter Skirving motioned him near his chair. Then he drew him downward till Ralph was bending on one knee. He laid a nerveless heavy hand on the young man's head, and looked for a minute—which seemed years to Ralph—very fixedly on his eyes. Then dropping his hand and turning to the window, he drew a long, heavy breath.
Ralph Peden rose and went out.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.