SUCH SWEET SORROW
Winsome and Ralph laughed, but Winsome sat up and put straight her sunbonnet. Sunbonnets are troublesome things. They will not stick on one's head. Manse Bell contradicts this. She says that her sunbonnet never comes off, or gets pushed back. As for other people's, lasses are not what they were in her young days.
‘I must go home,’ said Winsome; ‘they will miss me.’
‘You know that it is 'good-bye,' then,’ said Ralph.
‘What!’ said Winsome, ‘shall I not see you tomorrow?’ the bright light of gladness dying out of her eye. And the smile drained down out of her cheek like the last sand out of the sand-glass.
‘No,’ said Ralph quietly, keeping his eyes full on hers, ‘I cannot go back to the manse after what was said. It is not likely that I shall ever be there again.’
‘Then when shall I see you?’ said Winsome piteously. It is the cry of all loving womanhood, whose love goes out to the battle or into the city, to the business of war, or pleasure, or even of money- getting. ‘Then when shall I see you again?’ said Winsome, saying a new thing. There is nothing new under the sun, yet to lovers like Winsome and Ralph all things are new.
There was a catch in her throat. A salter dew gathered about her eyes, and the pupils expanded till the black seemed to shut out the blue.
Very tenderly Ralph looked down, and said, ‘Winsome, my dear, very soon I shall come again with more to ask and more to tell.’
‘But you are not going straight away to Edinburgh now? You must get a drive to Dumfries and take the Edinburgh coach.’
‘I cannot do that,’ said Ralph; ‘I must walk all the way; it is nothing.’
Winsome looked at Ralph, the motherly instinct that is in all true love surging up even above the lover's instinct. It made her clasp and unclasp her hands in distress, to think of him going away alone over the waste moors, from the place where they had been so happy.
‘And he will leave me behind!’ she said, with a sudden fear of the loneliness which would surely come when the bright universe was emptied of Ralph.
‘Had it only been tomorrow, I could have borne it better,’ she said. ‘Oh, it is too soon! How could he let us be so happy when he was going away from me?’
Winsome knew even better than Ralph that he must go, but the most accurate knowledge of necessity does not prevent the resentful feeling in a woman's heart when one she loves goes before his time.
But the latent motherhood in this girl rose up. If he were truly hers, he was hers to take care of. Therefore she asked the question which every mother asks, and no sweetheart who is nothing but a sweetheart has ever yet asked:
‘Have you enough money?’
Ralph blushed and looked most unhappy, for the first time since the sun rose.
‘I have none at all,’ he said; ‘my father only gave me the money for my journey to the Dullarg, and Mr. Welsh was to provide me what was necessary—’ He stopped here, it seemed such a hard and shameful thing to say. ‘I have never had anything to do with money,’ he said, hanging down his head.
Now Winsome, who was exceedingly practical in this matter, went forward to him quickly and put an arm upon his shoulder.
‘My poor boy!’ she said, with the tenderest and sweetest expression on her face. And again Ralph Peden perceived that there are things more precious than much money.
‘Now bend your head and let me whisper.’ It was already bent, but it was in his ear that Winsome wished to speak.
‘No, no, indeed I cannot, Winsome, my love; I could not, indeed, and in truth I do not need it.’
Winsome dropped her arms and stepped back tragically. She put one hand over the other upon her breast, and turned half way from him.
‘Then you do not love me,’ she said, purely as a coercive measure.
‘I do, I do—you know that I do; but I could not take it,’ said Ralph, piteously.
‘Well, good-bye, then,’ said Winsome, without holding out her hand, and turning away.
‘You do not mean it; Winsome, you cannot be cruel, after all. Come back and sit down. We shall talk about it, and you will see—’
Winsome paused and looked at him, standing so piteously. She says now that she really meant to go away, but she smiles when she says it, as if she did not quite believe the statement herself. But something—perhaps the look in his eyes, and the thought that, like herself, he had never known a mother—made her turn. Going back, she took his hand and laid it against her cheek.
‘Ralph,’ she said, ‘listen to me; if I needed help and had none I should not be proud; I would not quarrel with you when you offered to help me. No, I would even ask you for it! But then I love you.’ It was hardly fair. Winsome acknowledges as much herself; but then a woman has no weapons but her wit and her beauty—which is, seeing the use she can make of these two, on the whole rather fortunate than otherwise.
Ralph looked eager and a little frightened.
‘Would you do that really?’ he asked eagerly.
‘Of course I should!’ replied Winsome, a little indignantly.
Ralph took her in his arms, and in such a masterful way, that first she was frightened and then she was glad. It is good to feel weak in the arms of a strong man who loves you. God made it so when he made all things well.
‘My lassie!’ said Ralph for all comment.
Then fell a silence so prolonged that a shy squirrel in the boughs overhead resumed his researches upon the tassels and young shoots of the pine-tops, throwing down the debris in a contemptuous manner upon Winsome and Ralph, who stood below, listening to the beating of each other's hearts.
Finally Winsome, without moving, produced apparently from regions unknown a long green silk purse with three silver rings round the middle.
As she put it into Ralph's hand, something doubtful started again into his eyes, but Winsome looked so fierce in a moment, and so decidedly laid a finger on his lips, that perforce he was silent.
As soon as he had taken it, Winsome clapped her hands (as well as was at the time possible for her—it seemed, indeed, altogether impossible to an outsider, yet it was done), and said:
‘You are not sorry, dear—you are glad?’ with interrogatively arched eyebrows.
‘Yes,’ said Ralph, ‘I am very glad.’ As indeed he might well be.
‘You see,’ said the wise young woman, ‘it is this way: all that is my very own. I am your very own, so what is in the purse is your very own.’
Logic is great—greatest when the logician is distractingly pretty; then, at least, it is sure to prevail—unless, indeed, the opponent be blind, or another woman. This is why they do not examine ladies orally in logic at the great colleges.
We have often tried to recover Ralph's reply, but the text is corrupt at this place, the context entirely lost. Experts suspect a palimpsest.
Perhaps we linger overly long on the records; but there is so much called love in the world, which is no love, that there may be some use in dwelling upon the histories of a love which was fresh and tender, sweet and true. It is at once instruction for the young, and for the older folk a cast back into the days that were. If to any it is a mockery or a scorning, so much the worse—for of them who sit in the scorner's chair the doom is written.
Winsome and Ralph walked on into the eye of the day, hand in hand, as was their wont. They crossed the dreary moor, which yet is not dreary when you came to look at it on such a morning as this.
The careless traveller glancing at it as he passed might call it dreary; but in the hollows, miniature lakes glistened, into which the tiny spurs of granite ran out flush with the water like miniature piers. The wind of the morning waking, rippled on the lakelets, and blew the bracken softly northward. The heather was dark rose purple, the ‘ling’ dominating the miles of moor; for the lavender-grey flush of the true heather had not yet broken over the great spaces of the south uplands.
So their feet dragged slower as they drew near to that spot where they knew they must part. There was no thought of going back. There was even little of pain.
Perfect love had done its work. All frayed and secondhand loves may be made ashamed by the fearlessness of these two walking to their farewell trysting-place, lonely amid the world of heather. Only daft Jock Gordon above them, like a jealous scout, scoured the heights—sometimes on all-fours, sometimes bending double, with his long arms swinging like windmills, scaring even the sheep and the deer lest they should come too near. Overhead there was nothing nearer them than the blue lift, and even that had withdrawn itself infinitely far away, as though the angels themselves did not wish to spy on a later Eden. It was that midsummer glory of love-time, when grey Galloway covers up its flecked granite and becomes a true Purple Land.
If there be a fairer spot within the four seas than this fringe of birch-fringed promontory which juts into westernmost Loch Ken, I do not know it. Almost an island, it is set about with the tiniest beaches of white sand. From the rocks that look boldly up the loch the heather and the saxifrage reflect themselves in the still water. To reach it Winsome led Ralph among the scented gall-bushes and bog myrtle, where in the marshy meadows the lonely grass of Parnassus was growing. Pure white petals, veined green, with spikelets of green set in the angles within, five-lobed broidery of daintiest gold stitching, it shone with so clear a presage of hope that Ralph stooped to pick it that he might give it to Winsome.
She stopped him.
‘Do not pull it,’ she said; ‘leave it for me to come and look at— when—when you are gone. It will soon wither if it is taken away; but give me some of the bog myrtle instead,’ she added, seeing that Ralph looked a little disappointed.
Ralph gathered some of the narrow, brittle, fragrant leaves. Winsome carefully kept half for herself, and as carefully inserted a spray in each pocket of his coat.
‘There, that will keep you in mind of Galloway!’ she said. And indeed the bog myrtle is the characteristic smell of the great world of hill and moss we call by that name. In far lands the mere thought of it has brought tears to the eyes unaccustomed, so close do the scents and sights of the old Free Province—the lordship of the Picts—wind themselves about the hearts of its sons.
‘We transplant badly, we plants of the hills. You must come back to me,’ said Winsome, after a pause of wondering silence.
Loch Ken lay like a dream in the clear dispersed light of the morning, the sun shimmering upon it as through translucent ground glass. Teal and moor-hen squattered away from the shore as Winsome and Ralph climbed the brae, and stood looking northward over the superb levels of the loch. On the horizon Cairnsmuir showed golden tints through his steadfast blue.
Whaups swirled and wailed about the rugged side of Bennan above their heads. Across the loch there was a solitary farm so beautifully set that Ralph silently pointed it out to Winsome, who smiled and shook her head.
‘The Shirmers has just been let on a nineteen years' lease,’ she said, ‘eighteen to run.’
So practical was the answer, that Ralph laughed, and the strain of his sadness was broken. He did not mean to wait eighteen years for her, fathers or no fathers.
Then beyond, the whole land leaped skyward in great heathery sweeps, save only here and there, where about some hill farm the little emerald crofts and blue-green springing oatlands clustered closest. The loch spread far to the north, sleeping in the sunshine. Burnished like a mirror it was, with no breath upon it. In the south the Dee water came down from the hills peaty and brown. The roaring of its rapids could faintly be heard. To the east, across the loch, an island slept in the fairway, wooded to the water's edge.
It were a good place to look one's last on the earth, this wooded promontory, which might indeed have been that mountain, though a little one, from which was once seen all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. For there are no finer glories on the earth than red heather and blue loch, except only love and youth.
So here love and youth had come to part, between the heather that glowed on the Bennan Hill and the sapphire pavement of Loch Ken.
For a long time Winsome and Ralph were silent—the empty interior sadness, mixed of great fear and great hunger, beginning to grip them as they stood. Lives only just twined and unified were again to twain. Love lately knit was to be torn asunder. Eyes were to look no more into the answering eloquence of other eyes.
‘I must go,’ said Ralph, looking down into his betrothed's face.
‘Stay only a little,’ said Winsome. ‘It is the last time.’
So he stayed.
Strange, nervous constrictions played at ‘cat's cradle’ about their hearts. Vague noises boomed and drummed in their ears, making their own words sound strange and empty, like voices heard in a dream.
‘Winsome!’ said Ralph.
‘Ralph!’ said Winsome.
‘You will never for a moment forget me?’ said Winsome Charteris.
‘You will never for a moment forget me?’ said Ralph Peden.
The mutual answer taken and given, after a long silence of soul and body in not-to-be-forgotten communion, they drew apart.
Ralph went a little way down the birch-fringed hill, but turned to look a last look. Winsome was standing where he had left her. Something in her attitude told of the tears steadily falling upon her summer dress. It was enough and too much.
Ralph ran back quickly.
‘I cannot go away, Winsome. I cannot bear to leave you like this!’
Winsome looked at him and fought a good fight, like the brave girl she was. Then she smiled through her tears with the sudden radiance of the sun upon a showery May morning when the white hawthorn is coming out.
At this a sob, dangerously deep, rending and sudden, forced itself from Ralph's throat. Her smile was infinitely more heart-breaking than her tears. Ralph uttered a kind of low inarticulate roar at the sight—being his impotent protest against his love's pain. Yet such moments are the ineffaceable treasures of life, had he but known it. Many a man's deeds follow his vows simply because his lips have tasted the salt water of love's ocean upon the face of the beloved.
‘Be brave, Winsome,’ said Ralph; ‘it shall not be for long.’
Yet she was braver than he, had he but known it; for it is the heritage of the woman to be the stronger in the crises which inevitably wait upon love and love's achievement.
Winsome bent to kiss, with a touch like a benediction, not his lips now but his brow, as he stood beneath her on the hill slope.
‘Go,’ she said; ‘go quickly, while I have the strength. I will be brave. Be thou brave also. God be with thee!’
So Ralph turned and fled while he could. He dared not trust himself to look till he was past the hill and some way across the moor. Then he turned and looked back over the acres of heather which he had put between himself and his love.
Winsome still stood on the hill-top, the sun shining on her face. In her hand was the lilac sunbonnet, making a splash of faint pure colour against the blonde whiteness of her dress. Ralph could just catch the golden shimmer of her hair. He knew but he could not see how it crisped and tendrilled about her brow, and how the light wind blew it into little cirrus wisps of sun-flossed gold. The thought that for long he should see it no more was even harder than parting. It is the hard things on this earth that are the easiest to do. The great renunciation is easy, but it is infinitely harder to give up the sweet, responsive delight of the eye, the thought, the caress. This also is human. God made it.
The lilac sunbonnet waved a little heartless wave which dropped in the middle as if a string were broken. But the shining hair blew out, as a waft of wind from the Bennan fretted a moving patch across the loch.
Ralph flung out his hand in one of the savage gestures men use when they turn bewildered and march away, leaving the best of their lives behind them.
So shutting his eyes Ralph plunged headlong into the green glades of the Kenside and looked no more. Winsome walked slowly and sedately back, not looking on the world any more, but only twining and pulling roughly the strings of her sunbonnet till one came off. Winsome threw it on the grass. What did it matter now? She would wear it no longer. There was none to cherish the lilac sunbonnet any more.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.