chapter forty five
THE LAST OF THE LILAC SUNBONNET
Craig Ronald lies bright in a dreaming day in mid-September. The reapers are once more in the fields. Far away there is a crying of voices. The corn-fields by the bridge are white with a bloomy and mellow whiteness. Some part of the oats is already down. Close into the standing crop there is a series of rhythmic flashes, the scythes swinging like a long wave that curls over here and there. Behind the line of flashing steel the harvesters swarm like ants running hither and thither crosswise, apparently in aimless fashion.
Up through the orchard comes a girl, tall and graceful, but with a touch of something nobler and stiller that does not come to girlhood. It is the seal of the diviner Eden grace which only comes with the after Eden pain.
Winsome Peden carries more than ever of the old grace and beauty; and the eyes of her husband, who has been finishing the proofs of his next volume and at intervals looking over the busy fields to the levels of Loch Grannoch, tell her so as she comes.
But suddenly from opposite sides of the orchard this girl with the gracious something in her eyes is borne down by simultaneous assault. Shrieking with delight, a boy and a girl, dressed in complete defensive armour of daisies, and wielding desperate arms of lath manufactured by Andra Kissock, their slave, rush fiercely upon her. They pull down their quarry after a brisk chase, who sinks helplessly upon the grass under a merciless fire of caresses.
It is a critical moment. A brutal and licentious soldiery are not responsible at such moments. They may carry sack and rapine to unheard of extremities.
‘You young barbarians, be careful of your only mother—unless you have a stock of them!’ calls a voice from the top of the stairs which lead to the study.
‘Father's come out—hurrah! Come on, Allan!’ shouts Field-Marshal Winifred the younger who is leader and commander, to her army whose tottery and chubby youth does not suggest the desperation of a forlorn hope. So the study is carried at the point of the lath, and the banner of the victors—a cross of a sort unknown to heraldry, marked on a white ground with a blue pencil—is planted on the sacred desk itself.
Winsome the matron comes more slowly up the stairs.
‘Can common, uninspired people come in?’ she says, pausing at the top.
She looks about with a motherly eye, and pulls down the blind of the window into which the sun has been streaming all the morning. It is one of the advantages of such a wife that her husband, especially the rare literary variety, may be treated as no more than the eldest but most helpless of the babes. It is also true that Ralph had pulled up the blind in order that he might the better be able to see his wife moving among the reapers. For Winsome was more than ever a woman of affairs.
She stood in the doorway, looking in spite of the autumn sun and the walk up from the corn-field, deliriously cool. She fanned herself with a broad rhubarb-leaf—an impromptu fan plucked by the way. She sat down on the ledge of the upper step of Ralph's study, as she often did when she worked or rested. Ralph was again within, reclining on a window-seat, while the pack of reckless banditti swarmed over him.
‘Have the rhymes been behaving themselves this morning?’ Winsome said, looking across at Ralph as only a wife of some years' standing can look at her husband—with love deepened into understanding, and tempered with a spice of amusement and a wide and generous tolerance—the look of a loving woman to whom her husband and her husband's ways are better than a stage play. Such a look is a certificate of happy home and an ideal life, far more than all heroics. The love of the after-years depends chiefly on the capacity of a wife to be amused by her husband's peculiarities—and not to let him see it.
‘There are three blanks,’ said Ralph, a little wistfully. ‘I have written a good deal, but I dare not read it over, lest it should be nothing worth.’
This was a well-marked stage in Ralph's composition, and it was well that his wife had come.
‘I fear you have been dreaming, instead of working,’ she said, looking at him with a kind of pitying admiration. Ralph, too, had grown handsomer, so his wife thought, since she had him to look after. How, indeed, could it be otherwise?
She rose and went towards him.
‘Run down, now, children, and play on the grass,’ she said. ‘Run, chicks—off with you—shoo!’ and she flirted her apron after them as she did when she scattered the chickens from the dairy door. The pinafored people fled shrieking across the grass, tumbling over each other in riotous heaps.
Then Winsome went over and kissed her husband. He was looking so handsome that he deserved it. And she did not do it too often. She was glad that she had made him wear a beard. She put one of her hands behind his head and the other beneath his chin, tilting his profile with the air of a connoisseur. This can only be done in one position.
‘Well, does it suit your ladyship?’ said Ralph.
She gave him a little box on the ear.
‘I knew,’ he said, ‘that you wanted to come and sit on my knee!’
‘I never did,’ replied Winsome with animation, making a statement almost certainly inaccurate upon the face of it.
‘That's why you sent away the children,’ he went on, pinching her ear.
‘Of all things in this world,’ said Winsome indignantly, ‘commend me to a man for conceit!’
‘And to winsome wives for wily ways!’ said her husband instantly. To do him justice, he did not often do this sort of thing.
‘Keep the alliteration for the poems,’ retorted Winsome. ‘Truth will do for me.’
After a little while she said, without apparent connection:
‘It is very hot.’
‘What are they doing in the hay-field?’ asked Ralph.
‘Jock Forrest was leading and they were cutting down the croft very steadily. I think it looks like sixty bushels to the acre,’ she continued practically; ‘so you shall have a carpet for the study this year, if all goes well.’
‘That will be famous!’ cried Ralph, like a schoolboy, waving his hand. It paused among Winsome's hair.
‘I wish you would not tumble it all down,’ she said; ‘I am too old for that kind of thing now!’
The number of times good women perjure themselves is almost unbelievable.
But the recording angel has, it is said, a deaf side, otherwise he would need an ink-eraser. Ralph knew very well what she really meant, and continued to throw the fine-spun glossy waves over her head, as a miser may toss his gold for the pleasure of the cool, crisp touch.
‘Then,’ continued Winsome, without moving (for, though so unhappy and uncomfortable, she sat still—some women are born with a genius for martyrdom), ‘then I had a long talk with Meg.’
‘And the babe?’ queried Ralph, letting her hair run through his fingers.
‘And the babe,’ said Winsome; ‘she had laid it to sleep under a stock, and when we went to see, it looked so sweet under the narrow arch of the corn! Then it looked up with big wondering eyes. I believe he thought the inside of the stook was as high as a temple.’
‘It is not I that am the poet!’ said Ralph, transferring his attention for a moment from her hair.
‘Meg says Jock Forrest is perfectly good to her, and that she would not change her man for all Greatorix Castle.’
‘Does Jock make a good grieve?’ asked Ralph.
‘The very best; he is a great comfort to me,’ replied his wife. ‘I get far more time to work at the children's things—and also to look after my Ursa Major!’
‘What of Jess?’ asked Ralph; ‘did Meg say?’
‘Jess has taken the Lady Elizabeth to call on My Lord at Bowhill! What do you think of that? And she leads Agnew Greatorix about like a lamb, or rather like a sheep. He gets just one glass of sherry at dinner,’ said Winsome, who loved a spice of gossip—as who does not?
‘There is a letter from my father this morning,’ said Ralph, half turning to pick it off his desk; ‘he is well, but he is in distress, he says, because he got his pocket picked of his handkerchief while standing gazing in at a shop window wherein books were displayed for sale, but John Bairdieson has sewed another in at the time of writing. They had a repeating tune the other day, and the two new licentiates are godly lads, and turning out a credit to the kirk of the Marrow.’
‘And that is more than ever you would have done, Ralph,’ said his wife candidly.
‘Kezia is to be married in October, and there is a young man coming to see little Keren-happuch, but Jemima thinks that the minds of both of her younger sisters are too much set on the frivolous things of this earth. The professor has received a new kind of snuff from Holland which Kezia says is indistinguishable in its effects from pepper—one of his old students brought it to him—and that's all the news,’ said Ralph, closing up the letter and laying it on the table.
‘Has Saunders Moudiewort cast his easy affections on any one this year yet?’ Ralph asked, returning to the consideration of Winsome's hair.
Saunders was harvesting at present at Craig Ronald. The mistress of the farm laughed.
‘I think not,’ she said; ‘Saunders says that his mother is the most' siccar' housekeeper that he kens of, and that after a while ye get to mind her tongue nae mair nor the mill fanners.’
‘That's just the way with me when you scold me,’ said Ralph.
‘Very well, then, I must go to the summer seat and put you out of danger,’ replied Winsome. ‘Since you are so imposed upon, I shall see if the grannymother has done with her second volume. She never gets dangerous, except when she is kept waiting for the third.’
But before they had time to move, the rollicking storm-cloud of younglings again came tumultuously up the stairs—Winifred far in front, Allan toddling doggedly in the rear.
‘See what granny has put on my head!’ cried Mistress Winifred the youngest, whose normal manner of entering a room suggested a revolution.
‘Oo’ said Allan, pointing with his chubby finger, ‘yook, yook! mother's sitting on favver's knee-rock-a-by, favver, rock-a-by!’
But Ralph had no eyes for anything but the old sunbonnet in which, the piquant flower face of Mistress Five-year-old Winifred was all but lost. He stooped and kissed it, and the face under it. It was frayed and faded, and it had lost both strings.
Then he looked up and kissed the wife who was still his sweetheart, for the love the lilac sunbonnet had brought to them so many years ago was still fresh with the dew of their youth.
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.