A STRING OF THE LILAC SUNBONNET
For a long time they were silent, though it was not long before Winsome drew away her hand, which, however, continued to burn consciously for an hour afterwards. Silence settled around them. The constraint of speech fell first upon Ralph, being town-bred and accustomed to the convenances at Professor Thriepneuk's.
‘You rise early,’ he said, glancing shyly down at Winsome, who seemed to have forgotten his presence. He did not wish her to forget. He had no objection to her dreaming, if only she would dream about him.
Winsome turned the bewildering calmness of her eyes upon him. A gentleman, they say, is calm-eyed. So is a cow. But in the eye of a good woman there is a peace which comes from many generations of mothers—who, every one Christs in their way, have suffered their heavier share of the Eden curse.
Ralph would have given all that he possessed—which, by the way, was not a great deal—to be able to assure himself that there was any hesitancy or bashfulness in the glance which met his own. But Winsome's eyes were as clearly and frankly blue as if God had made them new that morning. At least Ralph looked upon their Sabbath peace and gave thanks, finding them very good.
A sparkle of laughter, at first silent and far away, sprang into them, like a breeze coming down Loch Grannoch when it lies asleep in the sun, sending shining sparkles winking shoreward, and causing the wavering golden lights on the shallow sand of the bays to scatter tremulously. So in the depths of Winsome's eyes glimmered the coming smile. Winsome could be divinely serious, but behind there lay the possibility and certainty of very frank earthly laughter. If, as Ralph thought, not for the first time in this rough island story, this girl were an angel, surely she was one to whom her Maker had given that rarest gift given to woman— a well-balanced sense of humour.
So when Ralph said, hardly knowing what he said, ‘You rise early,’ it was with that far-away intention of a smile that Winsome replied:
‘And you, sir, have surely not lagged in bed, or else you have come here in a great hurry.’
‘I rose,’ returned Ralph, ‘certainly betimes—in fact, a great while before day; it is the time when one can best know one's self.’
The sententiousness, natural to his years and education, to some extent rebuked Winsome, who said more soberly:
‘Perhaps you have again lost your books of study?’
‘I do not always study in books,’ answered Ralph.
Winsome continued to look at him as though waiting his explanation.
‘I mean,’ said Ralph, quickly, his pale cheek touched with red, ‘that though I am town-bred I love the things that wander among the flowers and in the wood. There are the birds, too, and the little green plants that have no flowers, and they all have a message, if I could only hear it and understand it.’
The sparkle in Winsome's eyes quieted into calm.
‘I too—’ she began, and paused as if startled at what she was about to say. She went on: ‘I never heard anyone say things like these. I did not know that anyone else had thoughts like these except myself.’
‘And have you thought these things?’ said Ralph, with a quick joy in his heart.
‘Yes,’ replied Winsome, looking down on the ground and playing with the loose string of the lilac sunbonnet. ‘I used often to wonder how it was that I could not look on the loch on Sabbath morning without feeling like crying. It was often better to look upon it than to go to Maister Welsh's kirk. But I ought not to say these things to you,’ she said, with a quick thought of his profession.
Ralph smiled. There were few things that Winsome Charteris might not say to him. He too had his experiences to collate.
‘Have you ever stood on a hill-top as though you were suspended in the air, and when you seem to feel the earth whirling away from beneath you, rushing swiftly eastward towards the sunrise?’
‘I have heard it,’ said Winsome unexpectedly.
‘Heard it?’ queried Ralph, with doubt in his voice.
‘Yes,’ said Winsome calmly, ‘I have often heard the earth wheeling round on still nights out on the top of the Craigs, where there was no sound, and all the house was asleep. It is as if some Great One were saying 'Hush!' to the angels—I think God himself!’
These were not the opinions of the kirk of the Marrow; neither were they expressed in the Acts Declaratory or the protests or claims of right made by the faithful contending remnant. But Ralph would not at that moment have hesitated to add them to the Westminster Confession.
It is a wonderful thing to be young. It is marvellously delightful to be young and a poet as well, who has just fallen—nay, rather, plunged fathoms—deep in love. Ralph Peden was both. He stood watching Winsome Charteris, who looked past him into a distance moistly washed with tender ultramarine ash, like her own eyes too full of colour to be gray and too pearly clear to be blue.
An equal blowing wind drew up the loch which lay beneath flooded with morning light, the sun basking on its broad expanse, and glittering in a myriad sparkles on the, narrows beneath them beside which the blanket-washing had been. A frolicsome breeze blew down the hill towards them in little flicks and eddies. One of these drew a flossy tendril of Winsome's golden hair, which this morning had red lights in it like the garnet gloss on ripe wheat or Indian corn, and tossed it over her brow. Ralph's hand tingled with the desire to touch it and put it back under her bonnet, and his heart leaped at the thought. But though he did not stir, nor had any part of his being moved save the hidden thought of his heart, he seemed to fall in his own estimation as one who had attempted a sacrilege.
‘Have you ever noticed,’ continued Winsome, all unconscious, going on with that fruitful comparison of feelings which has woven so many gossamer threads into three-fold cords, ‘how everything in the fields and the woods is tamer in the morning? They seem to have forgotten that man is their natural enemy while they slept.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Ralph theologically, ‘when they awake they forget that they are not still in that old garden that Adam kept.’
Winsome was looking at him now, for he had looked away in his turn, lost in a poet's thought. It struck her for the first time that other people might think him handsome. When a girl forgets to think whether she herself is of this opinion, and begins to think what others will think on a subject like this (which really does not concern her at all), the proceedings in the case are not finished.
They walked on together down by the sunny edge of the great plantation. The sun was now rising well into the sky, climbing directly upward as if on this midsummer day he were leading a forlorn hope to scale the zenith of heaven. He shone on the russet tassels of the larches, and the deep sienna boles of the Scotch firs. The clouds, which rolled fleecy and white in piles and crenulated bastions of cumulus, lighted the eyes of the man and maid as they went onward upon the crisping piny carpet of fallen fir-needles.
‘I have never seen Nature so lovely,’ said Ralph, ‘as when the bright morning breaks after a night of shower. Everything seems to have been new bathed in freshness.’
‘As if Dame Nature had had her spring cleaning,’ answered Winsome, ‘or Andrew Kissock when he has had his face washed once a week,’ who had been serious long enough, and who felt that too much earnestness even in the study of Nature might be a dangerous thing.
But the inner thought of each was something quite different. This is what Ralph thought within his heart, though his words were also perfectly genuine:
‘There is a dimple on her chin which comes out when she smiles,’ so he wanted her to smile again. When she did so, she was lovely enough to peril the Faith or even the denomination.
Ralph tried to recollect if there were no more stiles on this hill path over which she might have to be helped. He had taken off his hat and walked beside her bareheaded, carrying his hat in the hand farthest from Winsome, who was wondering how soon she would be able to tell him that he must keep his shoulders back.
Winsome was not a young woman of great experience in these matters, but she had the natural instinct for the possibilities of love without which no woman comes into the world—at once armour defensive and weapon offensive. She knew that one day Ralph Peden would tell her that he loved her, but in the meantime it was so very pleasant that it was a pity the days should come to an end. So she resolved that they should not, at least not just yet. If tomorrow be good, why confine one's self to today? She had not yet faced the question of what she would say to him when the day could be no longer postponed. She did not care to face it. Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof, is quite as excellent a precept as its counterpart, or at least so Winsome Charteris thought. But, all the same, she wished that she could tell him to keep his shoulders back.
A sudden resolve sprang full armed from her brain. Winsome had that strange irresponsibility sometimes which comes irresistibly to some men and women in youth, to say something as an experiment which she well knew she ought not to say, simply to see what would happen. More than once it had got her into trouble.
‘I wish you would keep back your shoulders when you walk!’ she said, quick as a flash, stopping and turning sideways to face Ralph Peden.
Ralph, walking thoughtfully with the student stoop, stood aghast, as though not daring to reply lest his ears had not heard aright.
‘I say, why do you not keep your shoulders back?’ repeated Winsome sharply, and with a kind of irritation at his silence.
He had no right to make her feel uncomfortable, whatever she might say.
‘I did not know—I thought—nobody ever told me,’ said Ralph, stammering and catching at the word which came uppermost, as he had done in college when Professor Thriepneuk, who was as fierce in the class-room as he was mild at home, had him cornered upon a quantity.
‘Well, then,’ said Winsome, ‘if everyone is so blind, it is time that someone did tell you now.’
Ralph squared himself like a drill-sergeant, holding himself so straight that Winsome laughed outright, and that so merrily that Ralph laughed too, well content that the dimple on her cheek should play at hide and seek with the pink flush of her clear skin.
So they had come to the stile, and Ralph's heart beat stronger, and a nervous tension of expectation quivered through him, bewildering his judgment. But Winsome was very clear-headed, and though the white of her eyes was as dewy and clear as a child's, she was no simpleton. She had read many men and women in her time, for it is the same in essence to rule Craig Ronald as to rule Rome.
‘This is your way,’ she said, sitting down on the stile. ‘I am going up to John Scott's to see about the lambs. It will be breakfast-time at the manse before you got back.’
Ralph's castle fell to the ground.
‘I will come up with you to John Scott's,’ he said with an undertone of eagerness.
‘Indeed, that you will not,’ said Winsome promptly, who did not want to arrive at seven o'clock in the morning at John Scott's with any young man. ‘You will go home and take to your book, after you have changed your shoes and stockings,’ she said practically.
‘Well, then, let me bid you good-bye, Winsome!’ said Ralph.
Her heart was warm to hear him say Winsome—for the first time. It certainly was not unpleasant, and there was no need that she should quarrel about that. She was about to give him her hand, when she saw something in his eye.
‘Mind, you are not to kiss it as you did grannie's yesterday; besides, there are John Scott's dogs on the brow of the hill,’ she said, pointing upward.
Poor Ralph could only look more crestfallen still. Such knowledge was too high for him. He fell back on his old formula:
‘I said before that you are a witch—’
‘And you say it again?’ queried Winsome, with careless nonchalance, swinging her bonnet by its strings. ‘Well, you can come back and kiss grannie's hand some other day. You are something of a favourite with her.’
But she had presumed just a hair-breadth too far on Ralph's gentleness. He snatched the lilac sunbonnet out of her hands, tearing, in his haste, one of the strings off, and leaving it in Winsome's hand. Then he kissed it once and twice outside where the sun shone on it, and inside where it had rested on her head. ‘You have torn it,’ she said complainingly, yet without anger.
‘I am very glad,’ said Ralph Peden, coming nearer to her with a light in his eye that she had never seen before.
Winsome dropped the string, snatched up the bonnet, and fled up the hill as trippingly as a young doe towards the herd's cottage. At the top of the fell she paused a moment with her hand on her side, as if out of breath. Ralph Peden was still holding the torn bonnet-string in his hand.
He held it up, hanging loose like a pennon from his hand. She could hear the words come clear up the hill:
‘I'm very—glad—that—I—tore—it, and I will come and—see— your—grandmother!’
‘Of all the—’ Winsome stopped for want of words, speaking to herself as she turned away up the hill—‘of all the insolent and disagreeable—’
She did not finish her sentence, as she adjusted the outraged sunbonnet on her curls, tucking the remaining string carefully within the crown; but as she turned again to look, Ralph Peden was calmly folding tip the string and putting it in a book.
‘I shall never speak to him again as long as I live,’ she said, compressing her lips so that a dimple that Ralph had never seen came out on the other side. This, of course, closed the record in the case. Yet in a little while she added thoughtfully: ‘But he is very handsome, and I think he will keep his shoulders back now. Not, of course, that it matters, for I am never to speak to him any more!’
John Scott's dogs were by this time leaping upon her, and that worthy shepherd was coming along a steep slope upon the edges of his boot-soles in the miraculous manner, which is peculiar to herds, as if he were walking on the turnpike.
Winsome turned for the last time. Against the broad, dark sapphire expanse of the loch, just where the great march dyke stepped off to bathe in the summer water, she saw something black which waved a hand and sprang over lightly.
Winsome sighed, and said a little wistfully yet not sadly:
‘Who would have thought it of him? It just shows!’ she said. All which is a warning to maids that the meekest worm may turn.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.