A LESSON IN BOTANY
No lassie in all the hill country went forth more heart-whole into the June morning than Winsome Charteris. She was not, indeed, wholly a girl of the south uplands. Her grandmother was never done reminding her of her ‘Englishy’ ways, which, according to that authority, she had contracted during those early years she had spent in Cumberland. From thence she had been brought to the farm town of Craig Ronald, soon after the death of her only uncle, Adam Skirving—whose death, coming after the loss of her own mother, had taken such an effect upon her grandfather that for years he had seldom spoken, and now took little interest in the ongoings of the farm.
Walter Skirving was one of a class far commoner in Galloway sixty years ago than now. He was a ‘bonnet laird’ of the best type, and his farm, which included all kinds of soil—arable and pasture, meadow and moor, hill pasture and wood—was of the value of about £300 a year, a sum sufficient in those days to make him a man of substance and consideration in the country.
He had been all his life, except for a single year in his youth when he broke bounds, a Marrow man of the strictest type; and it had been the wonder and puzzle of his life (to others, not to himself) how he came to make up to Ailie Gordon, the daughter of the old moss-trooping Lochenkit Gordons, that had ridden with the laird of Redgauntlet in the killing time, and more recently had been out with Maxwell of Nithsdale, and Gordon of Kenmure, to strike a blow for the ‘King-over-the-Water.’ And to this very day, though touched with a stroke which prevented her from moving far out of her chair, Ailie Skirving showed the good blood and high- hearted lightsomeness that had won the young laird of Craig Ronald upon the Loch Grannoch side nearly fifty years before.
It was far more of a wonder how Ailie Gordon came to take Walter Skirving. It may be that she felt in her heart the accent of a true man in the unbending, nonjuring elder of the Marrow kirk. Two great heart-breaks had crossed their lives: the shadow of the life story of Winsome's mother, that earlier Winsome whose name had not been heard for twenty years in the house of Craig Ronald; and the more recent death of Adam, the strong, silent, chivalrous-natured son who had sixteen years ago been killed, falling from his horse as he rode home alone one winter's night from Dumfries.
It was a natural thing to be in love with Winsome Charteris. It seemed natural to Winsome herself. Ever since she was a little lass running to school in Keswick, with a touse of lint-white locks blowing out in the gusts that came swirling off Skiddaw, Winsome had always been conscious of a train of admirers. The boys liked to carry her books, and were not so ashamed to walk home with her, as even at six years of age young Cumbrians are wont to be in the company of maids. Since she came to Galloway, and opened out with each succeeding year, like the bud of a moss rose growing in a moist place, Winsome had thought no more of masculine admiration than of the dull cattle that ‘goved’ upon her as she picked her deft way among the stalls in the byre. In all Craig Ronald there was nothing between the hill and the best room that did not bear the mark of Winsome's method and administrative capacity. In perfect dependence upon Winsome, her granny had gradually abandoned all the management of the house to her, so that at twenty that young woman was a veritable Napoleon of finance and capacity. Only old Richard Clelland of the Boreland, grave and wise pillar of the kirk by law established, still transacted her market business and banked her siller—being, as he often said, proud to act as ‘doer’ for so fair a principal. So it happened that all the reins of government about this tiny lairdship of one farm were in the strong and capable hands of a girl of twenty.
And Meg Kissock was her true admirer and faithful slave—Winsome's heavy hand, too, upon occasion; for all the men on the farm stood in awe of Meg's prowess, and very especially of Meg's tongue. So also the work fell mostly upon these two, and in less measure upon a sister of Meg's, Jess Kissock, lately returned from England, a young lady whom we have already met.
During the night and morning Winsome had studied with some attention the Hebrew Bible, in which the name Allan Welsh appeared, as well as the Latin Luther Commentary, and the Hebrew Lexicon, on the first page of which the name of Ralph Peden was written in the same neat print hand as in the note-book.
This was the second day of the blanket-washing, and Winsome, having in her mind a presentiment that the proprietor of these learned quartos would appear to claim his own, carried them down to the bridge, where Meg and her sister were already deep in the mysteries of frothing tubs and boiling pots. Winsome from the broomy ridge could hear the shrill ‘giff-gaff’ of their colloquy. She sat down under Ralph's very broom bush, and absently turned over the leaves of the note-book, catching sentences here and there.
‘I wonder how old he is?’ she said, meditatively; ‘his coat-tails looked old, but the legs went too lively for an old man; besides, he likes maids to be dressed in lilac—’ She paused still more thoughtfully. ‘Well, we shall see.’ She bent over and pulled the milky-stalked, white-seeded head of a dandelion. Taking it between the finger and thumb of her left hand she looked critically at it as though it were a glass of wine. ‘He is tall, and he is fair, and his age is—’
Here she pouted her pretty lips and blew.
‘One—ha, ha!—he was an active infant when he ran from the blanket-tramping—two, three, four—’
Some tiny feather-headed spikelets disengaged themselves unwillingly from the round and venerable downpolled dandelion. They floated lazily up between the tassels of the broom upon the light breeze.
‘Five, six, seven, eight—faith, he was a clean-heeled laddie yon. Ye couldna see his legs or coat-tails for stour as he gaed roon' the Far Away Turn.’
Winsome was revelling in her broad Scots. She had learned it from her grandmother.
‘Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—I'll no can set the dogs on him then—sixteen, seventeen, eighteen—dear me, this is becoming interesting.’
The plumules were blowing off freely now, like snow from the eaves on a windy day in winter.
‘Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one—I must reverence my elders. If I don't blow stronger he'll turn out to be fifty—twenty-three, twenty-f—’
A shadow fell across the daintily-held dandelion and lay a blue patch on the grass. Only one pale grey star stood erect on the stem, the vacant green sheathing of the calyx turning suddenly down.
‘Twenty four!—’ said Ralph Peden quietly, standing with his hat in his hand and an eager flush on his cheek. The last plumule floated away.
Winsome Charteris had risen instinctively, and stood looking with crimson cheeks and quicker-coming breath at this young man who came upon her in the nick of time.
He was startled and a little indignant. So they stood facing one another while one might count a score—silent and drinking each the other in, with that flashing transference of electric sympathy possible only to the young and the innocent.
It was the young man who spoke first. Winsome was a little indignant that he should dare to come upon her while so engaged. Not, of course, that she cared for a moment what he thought of her, but he ought to have known better than to have stolen upon her while she was behaving in such a ridiculous, childish way. It showed what he was capable of.
‘My name is Ralph Peden,’ he said humbly. ‘I came from Edinburgh the day before yesterday. I am staying with Mr. Welsh at the manse.’
Winsome Charteris glanced down at the books and blushed still more deeply. The Hebrew Bible and Lexicon lay harmlessly enough on the grass, and the Luther was swinging in a frivolous and untheological way on the strong, bent twigs of broom. But where was the note-book? Like a surge of Solway tide the remembrance came over her that, when she had plucked the dandelion for her soothsaying, she had thrust it carelessly into the bosom of her lilac-sprigged gown. Indeed, a corner of it peeped out at this moment. Had he seen it?—monstrous thought! She knew young men and the interpretations that they put upon nothings! This, in spite of his solemn looks and mantling bashfulness, was a young man.
‘Then I suppose these are yours,’ said Winsome, turning sideways towards the indicated articles so as to conceal the note-book. The young man removed his eyes momentarily from her face and looked in the direction of the books. He seemed to have entirely forgotten what it was that had brought him to Loch Grannoch bridge so early this June morning. Winsome took advantage of his glance to feel that her sunbonnet sat straight, and as her hand was on its way to her clustering curls she took this opportunity of thrusting Ralph's note-book into more complete concealment. Then her hands went up to her head only to discover that her sunbonnet had slipped backward, and was now hanging down her back by the strings.
Ralph Peden looked up at her, apparently entirely satisfied. What was a note-book to him now? He saw the sunbonnet resting upon the wavy distraction of the pale gold hair. He had a luxurious eye for colour. That lilac and gold went well together, was his thought.
Trammelled by the fallen head-gear, Winsome threw her head back, shaking out her tresses in a way that Ralph Peden never forgot. Then she caught at the strings of the errant bonnet.
‘Oh, let it alone!’ he suddenly exclaimed.
‘Sir?’ said Winsome Charteris—interrogatively, not imperatively. Ralph Peden, who had taken a step forward in the instancy of his appeal, came to himself again in a moment.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said very humbly, ‘I had no right—’
He paused, uncertain what to say.
Winsome Charteris looked up quickly, saw the simplicity of the young man, in one full eye-blink read his heart, then dropped her eyes again and said:
‘But I thought you liked lilac sunbonnets!’
Ralph Peden had now his turn to blush. Hardly in the secret of his own heart had he said this thing. Only to Mr. Welsh had his forgetful tongue uttered the word that was in his mind, and which had covered since yesterday morn all the precepts of that most superfluous wise woman, the mother of King Lemuel.
‘Are you a witch?’ asked Ralph, blundering as an honest and bashful man may in times of distress into the boldest speech.
‘You want to go up and see my grandmother, do you not?’ said Winsome, gravely, for such conversation was not to be continued on any conditions.
‘Yes,’ said the young man, perjuring himself with a readiness and facility most unbecoming in a student desiring letters of probation from the Protesting and Covenant-keeping Kirk of the Marrow.
Ralph Peden lightly picked up the books, which, as Winsome knew, were some considerable weight to carry.
‘Do you find them quite safe?’ she asked.
‘There was a heavy dew last night,’ he answered, ‘but in spite of it they seem quite dry.
‘We often notice the same thing on Loch Grannoch side,’ said Winsome.
‘I thought—that is, I was under the impression—that I had left a small book with some manuscript notes!’ said the young man, tentatively.
‘It may have dropped among the broom,’ replied the simple maid.
Whereupon the two set to seeking, both bareheaded, brown cropped head and golden wilderness of tresses not far from one another, while the ‘book of manuscript notes’ rose and fell to the quickened heart-beating of that wicked and deceitful girl, Winsome Charteris.
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.