ON THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD
But Agnew Greatorix came as often as ever to Craig Ronald. Generally he found Winsome busy with her household affairs, sometimes with her sleeves buckled above her elbows, rolling the tough dough for the crumpy farles of the oat-cake, and scattering handfuls of dry meal over it with deft fingers to bring the mass to its proper consistency for rolling out upon the bake-board. Leaving his horse tethered to the great dismounting stone at the angle of the kitchen (a granite boulder or ‘travelled stone,’ as they said thereabouts), with an iron ring into it, he entered and sat down to watch. Sometimes, as today, he would be only silent and watchful; but he never failed to compass Winsome with the compliment of humility and observance. It is possible that better things were stirring in his heart than usually brought him to such places. There is no doubt, indeed, that he appreciated the frankness and plain speech which he received from the very practical young mistress of Craig Ronald.
When he left the house it was Agnew Greatorix's invariable custom to skirt the edge of the orchard before mounting. Just in the dusk of the great oak-tree, where its branches mingle with those of the gean [wild cherry], he was met by the slim, lithe figure of Jess Kissock, in whose piquant elvishness some strain of Romany blood showed itself.
Jess had been waiting for him ever since he had taken his hat in his hand to leave the house. As he came in sight of the watcher, Agnew Greatorix stopped, and Jess came closer to him, motioning him imperiously to bring his horse close in to the shadow of the orchard wall. Agnew did so, putting out his arm as if he would kiss her; but, with a quick fierce movement, Jess thrust his hand away.
‘I have told you before not to play these tricks with me—keep them for them that ye come to Craig Ronald to see. It's the mistress ye want. What need a gentleman like you meddle with the maid?’
‘Impossible as it may seem, the like has been done,’ said Agnew, smiling down at the black eyes and blowing elf locks.
‘Not with this maid,’ replied Jess succinctly, and in deed she looked exceedingly able to take care of herself, as became Meg Kissock's sister.
‘I'll go no further with Winsome,’ said Greatorix gloomily, breaking the silence. ‘You said that if I consulted her about the well-being of the poor rats over at the huts, and took her advice about the new cottages for the foresters, she would listen to me. Well, she did listen, but as soon as I hinted at any other subject, I might as well have been talking to the old daisy in the sitting-room with the white band round her head.’
‘Did anybody ever see the like of you menfolk?’ cried Jess, throwing up her hands hopelessly; ‘d'ye think that a bonny lass is just like a black ripe cherry on a bough, ready to drap into your mooth when it pleases your high mightinesses to hold it open?’
‘Has Winsome Charteris any sweetheart?’ asked the captain.
‘What for wad she be doing with a sweetheart? She has muckle else to think on. There's a young man that's baith braw an' bonny, a great scholar frae Enbra' toon that comes gye an' aften frae the manse o' Dullarg, whaur he's bidin' a' the simmer for the learnin'. He comes whiles, an' Winsome kind o' gies him a bit convoy up the hill.’
‘Jess Kissock,’ said the young man passionately, ‘tell me no lies, or—’
‘Nane o' yer ill tongue for me, young man; keep it for yer mither. I'm little feared o' ye or ony like ye. Ye'll maybe get a bit dab frae the neb o' a jockteleg that will yeuk [tickle] ye for a day or twa gin ye dinna learn an' that speedily, as Maister Welsh wad say, to keep yer Han's aff my faither's dochter.’ Jess's good Scots was infinitely better and more vigorous than the English of the lady's maid.
‘I beg your pardon, Jess. I am a passionate, hasty man. I am sure I meant no harm. Tell me more of this hulking landlouper , and I'll give you a kiss.’
‘Keep yer kisses for them that likes them. The young man's no landlouper ony mair nor yersel'—no as mickle indeed, but a very proper young man, wi' a face as bonny as an angel—’
‘But, Jess, do you mean to say that you are going to help him with Winsome?’ asked the young man.
‘Feint a bit!’ answered the young woman frankly. ‘She'll no get him gin I can help it. I saw him first and bid him guid-day afore ever she set her een on him. It's ilka yin for hersel' when it comes to a braw young man,’ and Jess tossed her gipsy head, and pouted a pair of handsome scarlet lips.
Greatorix laughed. ‘The land lies that way, does it?’ he said. ‘Then that's why you would not give me a kiss today, Jess,’ he went on; ‘the black coat has routed the red baith but an' ben—but we'll see. You cannot both have him, Jess, and if you are so very fond of the parson, ye'll maybe help me to keep Winsome Charteris to myself.’
‘Wad ye mairry her gin ye had the chance, Agnew Greatorix?’
‘Certainly; what else?’ replied the young man promptly.
‘Then ye shall hae her,’ replied Jess, as if Winsome were within her deed of gift,
‘And you'll try for the student, Jess?’ asked the young man. ‘I suppose he would not need to ask twice for a kiss?’
‘Na, for I would kiss him withoot askin'—that is, gin he hadna the sense to kiss ME,’ said Jess frankly.
‘Well,’ said Greatorix, somewhat reluctantly, ‘I'm sure I wish you joy of your parson. I see now what the canting old hound from the Dullarg Manse meant when he tackled me at the loaning foot. He wanted Winsome for the young whelp.’
‘I dinna think that,’ replied Jess; ‘he disna want him to come aboot here ony mair nor you.’
‘How do you know that, Jess?’
‘Ou, I juist ken.’
‘Can you find out what Winsome thinks herself?’
‘I can that, though she hasna a word to say to me—that am far mair deservin' o' confidence than that muckle peony faced hempie, Meg, that an ill Providence gied me for a sis ter. Her keep a secret?—the wind wad waft it oot o' her.’ Thus affectionately Jess.
‘But how can you find out, then?’ persisted the young man, yet unsatisfied.
‘Ou fine that,’ said Jess. ‘Meg talks in her sleep.’
Before Agnew Greatorix leaped on to his horse, which all this time had stood quiet on his bridle-arm, only occasionally jerking his head as if to ask his master to come away, he took the kiss he had been denied, and rode away laughing, but with one cheek much redder than the other, the mark of Jess's vengeance.
‘Ye hae ower muckle conceit an' ower little sense ever to be a richt blackguard,’ said Jess as he went, ‘but ye hae the richt intention for the deil's wark. Ye'll do the young mistress nae hurt, for she wad never look twice at ye, but I cannot let her get the bonny lad frae Embra'-na, I saw him first, an' first come first served!’
‘Where have you been so long,’ asked her mistress, as she came in.
‘Juist drivin' a gilravagin' muckle swine oot o' the orchard!’ replied Jess with some force and truth.
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.