Now Meg Kissock could stand a great deal, and she would put up with a great deal to pleasure her mistress; but half an hour of loneliness down by the washing was overly much for her, and the struggle between loyalty and curiosity ended, after the manner of her sex, in the victory of the latter.
As Ralph and Winsome continued to seek, they came time and again close together and the propinquity of flushed cheek and mazy ringlet stirred something in the lad's heart which had never been touched by the Mistresses Thriepneuk, who lived where the new houses of the Plainstones look over the level meadows of the Borough Muir. His father had often said within himself, as he walked the Edinburgh streets to visit some sick kirk member, as he had written to his friend Adam Welsh, ‘Has the lad a heart?’ Had he seen him on that broomy knowe over the Grannoch water, he had not doubted, though he might well have been fearful enough of that heart's too sudden awakening.
Never before had the youth come within that delicate aura of charm which radiates from the bursting bud of the finest womanhood. Ralph Peden had kept his affections ascetically virgin. His nature's finest juices had gone to feed the brain, yet all the time his heart had waited expectant of the revealing of a mystery. Winsome Charteris had come so suddenly into his life that the universe seemed newborn in a day. He sprang at once from the thought of woman as only an unexplained part of the creation, to the conception of her (meaning thereby Winsome Charteris) as an angel who had not lost her first estate.
It was a strange thing for Ralph Peden, as indeed it is to every true man, to come for the first time within the scope of the unconscious charms of a good girl. There is, indeed, no better solvent of a cold nature, no better antidote to a narrow education, no better bulwark of defence against frittering away the strength and solemnity of first love, than a sudden, strong plunge into its deep waters.
Like timid bathers, who run a little way into the tide and then run out again with ankles wet, fearful of the first chill, many men accustom themselves to love by degrees. So they never taste the sweetness and strength of it as did Ralph Peden in these days, when, never having looked upon a maid with the level summer lightning of mutual interest flashing in his eyes, he plunged into love's fathomless mysteries as one may dive upon a still day from some craggy platform among the westernmost isles into Atlantic depths.
Winsome's light summer dress touched his hand and thrilled the lad to his remotest nerve centres. He stood light-headed, taking in as only they twain looked over the loch with far-away eyes, that subtle fragrance, delicate and free, which like a garment clothed the maid of the Grannoch lochside.
‘The water's on the boil,’ cried Meg Kissock, setting her ruddy shock of hair and blooming, amplified, buxom form above the knoll, wringing at the same time the suds from her hands, ‘an' I canna lift it aff mysel'.’
Her mistress looked at her with a sudden suspicion. Since when had Meg grown so feeble?
‘We had better go down,’ she said simply, turning to Ralph, who would have cheerfully assented had she suggested that they should together walk into the loch among the lily beds. It was the ‘we’ that overcame him. His father had used the pronoun in quite a different sense. ‘We will take the twenty-ninth chapter of second Chronicles this morning, Ralph—what do we understand by this peculiar use of vav conversive?’
But it was quite another thing when Winsome Charteris said simply, as though he had been her brother:
‘We had better go down!’
So they went down, taking the little stile at which Winsome had meditated over the remarks of Ralph Peden concerning the creation of Eve upon their way. Meg Kissock led the van, and took the dyke vigorously without troubling the steps, her kirtle fitting her for such exercises. Winsome came next, and Ralph stood aside to let her pass. She sprang up the low steps light as a feather, rested her fingertips for an appreciable fraction of a second on the hand which he instinctively held out, and was over before he realized that anything had happened. Yet it seemed that in that contact, light as a rose-leaf blown by the winds of late July against his cheek, his past life had been shorn clean away from all the future as with a sharp sword.
Ralph Peden had dutifully kissed his cousins Jemima, Kezia, and Kerenhappuch; but, on the whole, he had felt more pleasure when he had partaken of the excellent bannocks prepared for him by the fair hands of Kerenhappuch herself. But this was wholly a new thing. His breath came suddenly short. He breathed rapidly as though to give his lungs more air. The atmosphere seemed to have grown rarer and colder. Indeed, it was a different world, and the blanket-washing itself was transferred to some deliciously homely outlying annex of paradise.
Yet it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should be helping this girl, and he went forward with the greatest assurance to lift the black pot off the fire for her. The keen, acrid swirls of wood-smoke blew into his eyes, and the rank steam of yellow home-made soap, manufactured with bracken ash for lye, rose to his nostrils. Now, Ralph Peden was well made and strong. Spare in body but accurately compacted, if he had ever struggled with anything more formidable than the folio hide-hound Calvins and Turretins on his father's lower shelf in James's Court, he had been no mean antagonist.
But, though he managed with a great effort to lift the black pot off its gypsy tripod, he would have let the boiling contents swing dangerously against his legs had not Winsome caught sharply at his other hand and leaned over, so balancing the weight of the boiling water. So they walked down the path to where the tubs stood under the shade of the great ash-trees, with their sky-tossing, dry- rustling leaves. There Ralph set his burden down. Meg Kissock had been watching him keenly. She saw that he had severely burned his hand, and also that he said nothing whatever about it. He was a man. This gained for the young man Meg's hearty approval almost as much as his bashfulness and native good looks. What Meg Kissock did not know was that Ralph was altogether unconscious of the wound in his hand. It was a deeper wound which was at that time monopolising his thoughts. But this little incident was more than a thousand certificates in the eyes of Meg Kissock, and Meg's friendship was decidedly worth cultivating. Even for its own sake she did not give it lightly.
Before Winsome Charteris could release her hand, Ralph turned and said:
‘Do you know you have not yet told me your name?’
Winsome did know it very well, but she only said, ‘My name is Winsome Charteris, and this is Meg Kissock.’
‘Winsome Charteris, Winsome Charteris,’ said Ralph's heart over and over again, and he had not even the grace to say ‘Thank you’; but Meg stepped up to shake him by the hand.
‘I'm braw an' prood to ken ye, sir,’ said Meg. ‘That muckle sumph, Saunders Mowdiewort, telled me a' aboot ye comin' an' the terrible store o' lear ye hae. He's the minister's man, ye ken, an' howks the graves ower by at the parish kirk-yard, for the auld betheral there winna gang ablow three fit deep, and them that haes ill-tongued wives to haud doon disna want ony mistake—’
‘Meg,’ said her mistress, ‘do not forget yourself.’
‘Deil a fear,’ said Meg; ‘it was auld Sim o' Glower-ower-'em, the wizened auld hurcheon [hedgehog], that set a big thruch stane ower his first wife; and when he buried his second in the neist grave, he just turned the broad flat stone. 'Guid be thankit!' he says, 'I had the forethocth to order a stane heavy eneuch to haud them baith doon!'‘
‘Get to the washing, Meg,’ said Winsome.
‘Fegs!’ returned Meg, ‘ye waur in nae great hurry yersel' doon aff the broomy knowe! What's a' the steer sae sudden like?’
Winsome disdained an answer, but stood to her own tub, where some of the lighter articles—pillow-slips, and fair sheets of ‘seventeen-hundred’ linen were waiting her daintier hand.
As Winsome and Meg washed, Ralph Peden carried water, learning the wondrous science of carrying two cans over a wooden hoop; and in the frankest tutelage Winsome put her hand over his to teach him, and the relation of master and pupil asserted its ancient danger.
It had not happened to Winsome Charteris to meet any one to whom she was attracted with such frank liking. She had never known what it was to have a brother, and she thought that this clear-eyed young man might be a brother to her. It is a fallacy common among girls that young men desire them as sisters. Ralph himself was under no such illusion, or at least would not have been, had he had the firmness of mind to sit down half a mile from his emotions and coolly look them over. But in the meanwhile he was only conscious of a great and rising delight in his heart.
As Winsome Charteris bent above the wash-tub he was at liberty to observe how the blood mantled on the clear oval of her cheek. He had time to note—of course entirely as a philosopher—the pale purple shadow under the eyes, over which the dark, curling lashes came down like the fringe of the curtain of night.
‘Why—I wonder why?’ he said, and stopped aghast at his utterance aloud of his inmost thought.
‘What do you wonder?’ said Winsome, glancing up with a frank dewy freshness in her eyes.
‘I wonder why—I wonder that you are able to do all this work,’ he said, with an attempt to turn the corner of his blunder.
Winsome shook her head.
‘Now you are trying to be like other people,’ she said; ‘I do not think you will succeed. That was not what you were going to say. If you are to be my friend, you must speak all the truth to me and speak it always.’
A thing which, indeed, no man does to a woman. And, besides, nobody had spoken of Ralph Peden being a friend to her. The meaning was that their hearts had been talking while their tongues had spoken of other things; and though there was no thought of love in the breast of Winsome Charteris, already in the intercourse of a single morning she had given this young Edinburgh student of divinity a place which no other had ever attained to. Had she had a brother, she thought, what would he not have been to her? She felt specially fitted to have a brother. It did not occur to her to ask whether she would have carried her brother's college note-book, even by accident, where it could be stirred by the beating of her heart.
‘Well,’ Ralph said at last, ‘I will tell you what I was wondering. You have asked me, and you shall know: I only wondered why your eyelashes were so much darker than your hair.’
Winsome Charteris was not in the least disturbed.
‘Ministers should occupy their minds with something else,’ she said, demurely. ‘What would Mr. Welsh say? I am sure he has never troubled his head about such things. It is not fitting,’ Winsome said severely.
‘But I want to know,’ said this persistent young man, wondering at himself.
‘Well,’ said Winsome, glancing up with mischief in her eye, ‘I suppose because I am a very lazy sort of person, and dark window- blinds keep out the light.’
‘But why are they curled up at the end?’ asked unblushingly the author of the remarks upon Eve formerly quoted.
‘It is time that you went up and saw my grandmother!’ said Winsome, with great composure.
‘Juist what I was on the point o' remarkin' mysel'!’ said Meg Kissock.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.