AT THE BARN END
In a little while the cows were all milked. Saunders was standing at the end of the barn, looking down the long valley of the Grannoch water. There was a sweet coolness in the air, which he vaguely recognized by taking off his hat.
‘Open the yett!’ cried Jess, from the byre door. Saunders heard the clank and jangle of the neck chains of Hornie and Specky and the rest, as they fell from their necks, loosened by Jess's hand. The sound grew fainter and fainter as Jess proceeded to the top of the byre where Marly stood soberly sedate and chewed her evening cud. Now Marly did not like Jess, therefore Meg always milked her; she would not, for some special reason of her own, ‘let doon her milk’ when Jess laid a finger on her. This night she only shook her head and pushed heavily against Jess as she came.
‘Hand up there, ye thrawn randy!’ said Jess in byre tones.
And so very sulkily Marly moved out, looking for Meg right and left as she did so. She had her feelings as well as anyone, and she was not the first who had been annoyed by the sly, mischievous gipsy with the black eyes, who kept so quiet before folk. As she went out of the byre door, Jess laid her switch smartly across Marly's loins, much to the loss of dignity of that stately animal, who, taking a hasty step, slipped on the threshold, and overtook her neighbours with a slow resentment gathering in her matronly breast.
When Saunders Mowdiewort heard the last chain drop in the byre, and the strident tones of Jess exhorting Marly, he took a few steps to the gate of the hill pasture. He had to pass along a short home-made road, and over a low parapetless bridge constructed simply of four tree-trunks laid parallel and covered with turf. Then he dropped the bars of the gate into the hill pasture with a clatter, which came to Winsome's ears as she stood at her window looking out into the night. She was just thinking at that moment what a good thing it was that she had sent back Ralph Peden's poem. So, in order to see whether this were so or not, she repeated it all over again to herself.
When he came back again to the end of the barn, Saunders found Jess standing there, with the wistful light in her eyes which that young woman of many accomplishments could summon into them as easily as she could smile. For Jess was a minx—there is no denying the fact. Yet even slow Saunders admitted that, though she was nothing to Meg, of course, still there was something original and attractive about her—like original sin.
Jess was standing with her head on one side, putting the scarlet head of a poppy among her black hair. Jess had strange tastes, which would be called artistic nowadays in some circles. Her liking was always bizarre and excellent, the taste of the primitive Galloway Pict from whom she was descended, or of that picturesque Glenkens warrior, who set a rowan bush on his head on the morning when he was to lead the van at the battle of the Standard. Scotland was beaten on that great occasion, it is true; but have the chroniclers, who complain of the place of Galloway men in the ranks, thought how much more terribly Scotland might have been beaten had Galloway not led the charge? But this is written just because Jess Kissock, a Galloway farm lassie, looked something like a cast back to the primitive Pict of the south, a fact which indeed concerns the story not at all, for Saunders Mowdiewort had not so much as ever heard of a Pict.
Jess did not regard Saunders Mowdiewort highly at any time. He was one of Meg's admirers, but after all he was a man, and one can never tell. It was for this reason that she put the scarlet poppy into her hair.
She meditated ‘I maybe haena Meg's looks to the notion o' some folk, but I mak' a heap better use o' the looks that I hae, an' that is a great maitter!’
‘Saunders,’ said Jess softly, going up to the Cuif and pretending to pick a bit of heather off his courting coat. She did this with a caressing touch which soothed the widower, and made him wish that Meg would do the like. He began to think that he had never properly valued Jess.
‘Is Meg comin' oot again?’ Jess inquired casually, the scarlet poppy set among the blue-black raven's wings, and brushing his beard in a distracting manner.
Saunders would hare given a good deal to be able to reply in the affirmative, but Meg had dismissed him curtly after the milking, with the intimation that it was time he was making manseward. As for her, she was going within doors to put the old folks to bed.
After being satisfied on this point the manner of Jess was decidedly soothing. That young woman had a theory which was not quite complimentary either to the sense or the incorruptibility of men. It was by showing an interest in them and making them think that they (or at least the one being operated upon) are the greatest and most fascinating persons under the sun, almost anything can be done. This theory has been acted upon with results good and bad, in other places besides the barn end of Craig Ronald.
‘They're a' weel at the Manse?’ said Jess, tentatively.
‘On aye,’ said Saunders, looking round the barn end to see if Meg could see him. Satisfied that Meg was safe in bed, Saunders put his hand on Jess's shoulder—the sleek-haired, candle-greased deceiver that he was.
‘Jess, ye're bonny,’ said he.
‘Na, na,’ said Jess, very demurely, ‘it's no me that's bonny—its Meg!’
Jess was still looking at him, and interested in getting all the rough wool off the collar of his homespun coat.
The Samson of the graveyard felt his strength deserting him.
‘Davert, Jess lass, but it's a queer thing that it never cam across me that ye were bonny afore!’
Jess looked down. The Cuif thought that it was because she was shy, and his easy heart went out to her; but had he seen the smile that was wasted on a hopping sparrow beneath, and especially the wicked look in the black eyes, he might have received some information as to the real sentiments of girls who put red poppies in their hair in order to meet their sisters' sweethearts at the barn end.
‘Is the young minister aye bidin' at the Manse?’ asked Jess.
‘Aye, he is that!’ said Saunders, ‘he's a nice chiel' yon. Ye'll see him whiles ower by here. They say—that is Manse Bell says— that he's real fond o' yer young mistress here. Ken ye ocht aboot that, Jess?’
‘Hoots, havers, our young mistress is no for penniless students, I wot weel. There'll be nocht in't, an' sae ye can tell Bell o' the Manse, gin you an' her is so chief [intimate].’
‘Very likely ye're richt. There'll be nocht in't, I'm thinkin'—at least on her side. But what o' the young man? D'ye think he's sair ta'en up aboot Mistress Winsome? Meg was sayin' so.’
‘Meg thinks there's naebody worth lookin' at in the warl' but hersel' and Mistress Winifred Charteris, as she ca's hersel'; but there's ithers thinks different.’
‘What hae ye against her, Jess? I thocht that she's a fell fine young leddy.’
‘Oh she's richt eneuch, but there's bonny lasses as weel as her; an' maybe, gin young Maister Peden comes ower by to Craig Ronald to see a lass nnkenned o' a'—what faut wad there be in that?’
‘Then it's Meg he comes to see, and no' the young mistress?’ said the alarmed grave-digger.
‘Maybes aye an' maybes no—there's bonny lasses forby Meg Kissock for them that hae gotten een in their heads.’
‘Wi' Jess! Is't yerself?’ said Saunders.
Jess was discreetly silent.
‘Ye'll no tell onybody, wull ye, Maister Mowdiewort?’ she said anxiously.
To Saunders this was a great deal better than being called a ‘Cuif.’
‘Na, Jess, lass, I'll no tell a soul—no yin.’
‘No' even Meg -mind!’ repeated Jess, who felt that this was a vital point.
So Saunders promised, though he had intended to do so on the first opportunity.
‘Mind, if ye do, I'll never gie ye a hand wi' Meg again as lang as I leeve!’ said Jess emphatically.
‘Jess, d'ye think she likes me?’ asked the widower in a hushed whisper.
‘Saunders, I'm juist sure o't,’ replied Jess with great readiness. ‘But she's no yin o' the kind to let on.’
‘Na,’ groaned Saunders, ‘I wuss to peace she was. But ye mind me that I gat a letter frae the young minister that I was to gie to Meg. But as you're the yin he comes to see, I maun as weel gie't direct to yoursel'.’
‘It wad be as weel,’ said Jess, with a strange sort of sea-fire like moonshine in her eyes.
Saunders passed over a paper to her readily, and Jess, with her hand still on his coat-collar, in a way that Meg had never used, thanked him in her own way.
‘Juist bide a wee,’ she said; ‘I'll be wi' ye in a minute!’
Jess hurried down into the old square-plotted garden, which ran up to the orchard trees. She soon found a moss-rose bush from which she selected a bud, round which the soft feathery envelope was just beginning to curl back. Then she went round by the edge of the brook which keeps damp one side of the orchard, where she found some single stems of forget-me-nots, shining in the dusk like beaded turquoise. She pulled some from the bottom of the half-dry ditch, and setting the pale moss-rosebud in the middle, she bound the whole together with a striped yellow and green withe. Then snipping the stacks with her pocket scissors, she brought the posy to Saunders, with instructions to wrap it in a dock-leaf and never to let his hands touch it the whole way.
Saunders, dazed and fascinated, forgetful even of Meg and loyalty, promised. The glamour of Jess, the gypsy, was upon him.
‘But what am I to say,’ he asked.
‘Say its frae her that he sent the letter to; he'll ken brawly that Meg hadna the gumption to send him that!’ said Jess candidly.
Saunders said his good-night in a manner which would certainly have destroyed all his chances with Meg had she witnessed the parting. Then he stolidly tramped away down the loaning.
Jess called after him, struck with a sudden thought. ‘See that ye dinna gie it to him afore the minister.’
Then she put her hands beneath her apron and walked home meditating. ‘To be a man is to be a fool,’ said Jess Kissock, putting her whole experience into a sentence. Jess was a daughter of the cot; put then she was also a daughter of Eve, who had not even so much as a cot.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.