chapter thirty four
THE DEW OF THEIR YOUTH
Jock made his way without a moment's hesitation to the little hen- house which stood at one end of the farm steading of Craig Ronald. Up this he walked with his semi-prehensile bare feet as easily as though he were walking along the highway. Up to the rigging of the house he went, then along it—setting one foot on one side and the other on the other, turning in his great toes upon the coping for support. Thus he came to the gable end at which Meg slept. Jock leaned over the angle of the roof and with his hand tapped on the window.
‘Wha's there? ‘said Meg from her bed, no more surprised than if the knock had been upon the outer door at midday.
‘It's me, daft Jock Gordon,’ said Jock candidly.
‘Gae wa' wi' ye, Jock! Can ye no let decent fowk sleep in their beds for yae nicht?’
‘Ye maun get up, Meg,’ said Jock.
‘An' what for should I get up?’ queried Meg indignantly. ‘I had ancuch o' gettin' up yestreen to last me a gye while.’
‘There's a young man here wantin' to coort your mistress!’ said Jock delicately.
‘Haivers!’ said Meg, ‘hae ye killed another puir man?’
‘Na, na, he's honest—this yin. It's the young man frae the manse. The auld carle o' a minister has turned him oot o' hoose an' hame, and he's gaun awa' to Enbra'. He says he maun see the young mistress afore he gangs—but maybe ye ken better, Meg.’
‘Gae wa' frae the wunda, Jock, and I'll get up,’ said Meg, with a brevity which betokened the importance of the news.
In a little while Meg was in Winsome's room. The greyish light of early morning was just peeping in past the little curtain. On the chair lay the lilac-sprigged muslin dress of her grandmother's, which Winsome had meant to put on next morning to the kirk. Her face lay sideways on the pillow, and Meg could see that she was softly crying even in her sleep. Meg stood over her a moment. Something hard lay beneath Winsome's cheek, pressing into its soft rounding. Meg tenderly slipped it out. It was an ordinary memorandum-book written with curious signs. On the pillow by her lay the lilac sunbonnet.
Meg put her arms gently round Winsome, saying:
‘It's me, my lamb. It's me, your Meg!’
And Meg's cheek was pressed against that of Winsome, moist with sleep. The sleeper stirred with a dovelike moaning, and opened her eyes, dark with sleep and wet with the tears of dreams, upon Meg.
‘Waken, my bonnie; Meg has something that she maun tell ye.’
So Winsome looked round with the wild fear with which she now started from all her sleeps; but the strong arms of her loyal Meg were about her, and she only smiled with a vague wistfulness, and said:
‘It's you, Meg, my dear!’
So into her ear Meg whispered her tale. As she went on, Winsome clasped her round the neck, and thrust her face into the neck of Meg's drugget gown. This is the same girl who had set the ploughmen their work and appointed to each worker about the farm her task. It seems necessary to say so.
‘Noo,’ said Meg, when she had finished, ‘ye ken whether ye want to see him or no!’
‘Meg,’ whispered Winsome, ‘can I let him go away to Edinburgh and maybe never see me again, without a word?’
‘Ye ken that best yersel',’ said Meg with high impartiality, but with her comforting arms very close about her darling.
‘I think,’ said Winsome, the tears very near the lids of her eyes, ‘that I had better not see him. I—I do not wish to see him—Meg,’ she said earnestly; ‘go and tell him not to see me any more, and not to think of a girl like me—’
Meg went to Winsome's little cupboard wardrobe in the wall and took down the old lilac-sprayed summer gown which she had worn when she first saw Ralph Peden.
‘Ye had better rise, my lassie, an' tak' that message yersel'!’ said Meg dryly.
So obediently Winsome rose. Meg helped her to dress, holding silently her glimmering white garments for her as she had done when first as a fairy child she came to Craig Ronald. Some of them were a little roughly held, for Meg could not see quite so clearly as usual. Also when she spoke her speech sounded more abruptly and harshly than was its wont.
At last the girl's attire was complete, and Winsome stood ready for her morning walk fresh as the dew on the white lilies. Meg tied the strings of the old sunbonnet beneath her sweet chin, and stepped back to look at the effect; then, with sudden impulsive movement, she went tumultuously forward and kissed her mistress on the cheek.
‘I wush it was me!’ she said, pushing Winsome from the room.
The day was breaking red in the east when Winsome stepped out upon the little wooden stoop, damp with the night mist, which seemed somehow strange to her feet. She stepped down, giving a little familiar pat to the bosom of her dress, as though to advertise to any one who might be observing that it was her constant habit thus to walk abroad in the dawn.
Meg watched her as she went. Then she turned into the house to stop the kitchen clock and out to lock the stable door.
Through the trees Winsome saw Ralph long before he saw her. She was a woman; he was only a naturalist and a man. She drew the sunbonnet a little farther over her eyes. He started at last, turned, and came eagerly towards her.
Jock Gordon, who had remained about the farm, went quickly to the gate at the end of the house as if to shut it.
‘Come back oot o' that,’ said Meg sharply.
Jock turned quite as briskly.
‘I was gaun to stand wi' my back til't, sae that they micht ken there was naebody luikin'. D'ye think Jock Gordon haes nae mainners?’ he said indignantly.
‘Staun wi' yer back to a creel o' peats, Jock; it'll fit ye better!’ ooserved Meg, giving him the wicker basket with the broad leather strap which was used at Craig Ronald for bringing the peats in from the stack.
Winsome had not meant to look at Ralph as she came up to him. It seemed a bold and impossible thing for her ever again to come to him. The fear of a former time was still strong upon her.
But as soon as she saw him, her eyes somehow could not leave his face. He dropped his hat on the grass beneath, as he came forward to meet her under the great branches of the oak-trees by the little pond. She had meant to tell him that he must not touch her —she was not to be touched; yet she went straight into his open arms like a homing dove. Her great eyes, still dewy with the warm light of love in them, never left his till, holding his love safe in his arms, he drew her to him and upon her sweet lips took his first kiss of love.
‘At last!’ he said, after a silence.
The sun was rising over the hills of heather. League after league of the imperial colour rolled westward as the level rays of the sun touched it.
‘Now do you understand, my beloved?’ said Ralph. Perhaps it was the red light of the sun, or only some roseate tinge from the miles of Galloway heather that stretched to the north, but it is certain that there was a glow of more than earthly beauty on Winsome's face as she stood up, still within his arms, and said:
‘I do not understand at all, but I love you.’
Then, because there is nothing more true and trustful than the heart of a good woman, or more surely an inheritance from the maid-mother of the sinless garden than her way of showing that she gives her all, Winsome laid her either hand on her lover's shoulders and drew his face down to hers—laying her lips to his of her own free will and accord, without shame in giving, or coquetry of refusal, in that full kiss of first surrender which a woman may give once, but never twice, in her life.
This also is part of the proper heritage of man and woman, and whoso has missed it may attain wealth or ambition, may exhaust the earth—yet shall die without fully or truly living.
A moment they stood in silence, swaying a little like twin flowers in the wind of the morning. Then taking hands like children, they slowly walked away with their faces towards the sunrise. There was the light of a new life in their eyes. It is good sometimes to live altogether in the present. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof,’ is a proverb in all respects equal to the scriptural original.
For a little while they thus walked silently forward, and on the crest of the ridge above the nestling farm Ralph paused to take his last look of Craig Ronald. Winsome turned with him in complete comprehension, though as yet he had told her no word of his projects. Nor did she think of any possible parting, or of anything save of the eyes into which she did not cease to look, and the lover whose hand it was enough to hold. All true and pure love is an extension of God—the gladness in the eyes of lovers, the tears also, bridals and espousals, the wife's still happiness, the delight of new-made homes, the tinkle of children's laughter. It needs no learned exegete to explain to a true lover what John meant when he said, ‘For God is love.’ These things are not gifts of God, they are parts of him.
It was at this moment that Meg Kissock, having seen them stand a moment still against the sky, and then go down from their hilltop towards the north, unlocked the stable door, at which Ebie Fairrish had been vainly hammering from within for a quarter of an hour. Then she went indoors and pulled close the curtains of Winsome's little room. She came out, locked the bedroom door, and put the key in her pocket. Her mistress had a headache. Meg was a treasure indeed, as a thoughtful person about a household often is.
As Winsome and Ralph went down the farther slope of the hill, towards the road that stretched away northward across the moors, they fell to talking together very practically. They had much to say. Before they had gone a mile the first strangeness had worn off, and the stage of their intimacy may be inferred from the fact that they were only at the edge of the great wood of Grannoch bank, when Winsome reached the remark which undoubtedly Mother Eve made to her husband after they had been some time acquainted:
‘Do you know, I never thought I should talk to any one as I am talking to you?’
Ralph allowed that it was an entirely wonderful thing—indeed, a belated miracle. Strangely enough, he had experienced exactly the same thought. ‘Was it possible?’ smiled Winsome gladly, from under the lilac sunbonnet.
Such wondrous and unexampled correspondence of impression proved that they were made for one another, did it not? At this point they paused. Exercise in the early morning is fatiguing. Only the unique character of these refreshing experiences induces us to put them on record.
Then Winsome and Ralph proceeded to other and not less extraordinary discoveries. Sitting on a wind-overturned tree-trunk, looking out from the edge of the fringing woods of the Grannoch bank towards the swells of Cairnsmuir's green bosom, they entered upon their position with great practicality. Nature, with an unusual want of foresight, had neglected to provide a back to this sylvan seat, so Ralph attended to the matter himself. This shows that self-help is a virtue to be encouraged.
Ralph had some disinclination to speak of the terrors of the night which had forever rolled away. Still, he felt that the matter must be cleared up; so that it was with doubt in his mind that he showed Winsome the written line which had taken him to the bridge instead of to the hill gate.
‘That's Jess Kissock's writing!’ Winsome said at once. Ralph had the same thought. So in a few moments they traced the whole plot to its origin. It was a fit product of the impish brain of Jess Kissock. Jess had sent the false note of appointment to Ralph by Andra, knowing that he would be so exalted with the contents that he would never doubt its accuracy. Then she had despatched Jock Gordon with Winsome's real letter to Greatorix Castle; in answer to the supposed summons, which was genuine enough, though not meant for him, Agnew Greatorix had come to the hill gate, and Jess had met Ralph by the bridge to play her own cards as best she could for herself.
‘How wicked!’ said Winsome, ‘after all.’
‘How foolish!’ said Ralph, ‘to think for a moment that any one could separate you and me.’
But Winsome bethought herself how foolishly jealous she had been when she found Jess putting a flower into Ralph's coat, and Jess's plot did not look quite so impossible as before.
‘I think, dear,’ said Ralph, ‘you must after this make your letters so full of your love, that there can be no mistake whom they are intended for.’
‘I mean to,’ said Winsome frankly.
There was also some fine scenery at this point.
But there was no hesitation in Ralph Peden's tone when he settled down steadily to tell her of his hopes.
Winsome sat with her eyes downcast and her head a little to one side, like a bright-eyed bird listening.
‘That is all true and delightful,’ she said, ‘but we must not be selfish or forget.’
‘We must remember one another!’ said Ralph, with the absorption of newly assured love.
‘We are in no danger of forgetting one another,’ said that wise woman in counsel; ‘we must not forget others. There is your father—you have not forgotten him.’
With a pang Ralph remembered that there was yet something that he could not tell Winsome. He had not even been frank with her concerning the reason of his leaving the manse and going to Edinburgh. She only understood that it was connected with his love for her, which was not approved of by the minister of the Marrow kirk.
‘My father will be as much pleased with you as I,’ said Ralph, with enthusiasm.
‘No doubt,’ said Winsome, laughing; ‘fathers always are with their sons' sweethearts. But you have not forgotten something else?’
‘What may that be?’ said Ralph doubtfully.
‘That I cannot leave my grandfather and grandmother at Craig Ronald as they are. They have cared for me and given me a home when I had not a friend. Would you love me as you do, if I could leave them even to go out into the world with you?’
‘No,’ said Ralph very reluctantly, but like a man.
‘Then,’ said Winsome bravely, ‘go to Edinburgh. Fight your own battle, and mine,’ she added.
‘Winsome,’ said Ralph, earnestly, for this serious and practical side of her character was an additional and unexpected revelation of perfection, ‘if you make as good a wife as you make a sweetheart, you will make one man happy.’
‘I mean to make a man happy,’ said Winsome, confidently.
The scenery again asserted its claim to attention. Observation enlarges the mind, and is therefore pleasant.
After a pause, Winsome said irrelevantly.
‘And you really do not think me so foolish?’
‘Foolish! I think you are the wisest and—’
‘No, no.’ Winsome would not let him proceed. ‘You do not really think so. You know that I am wayward and changeable, and not at all what I ought to be. Granny always tells me so. It was very different when she was young, she says. Do you know,’ continued Winsome thoughtfully, ‘I used to be so frightened, when I knew that you could read in all these wise books of which I did not know a letter? But I must confess—I do not know what you will say, you may even be angry—I have a note-book of yours which I kept.’
But if Winsome wanted a new sensation she was disappointed, for Ralph was by no means angry.
‘So that's where it went?’ said Ralph, smiling gladly.
‘Yes,’ said Winsome, blushing not so much with guilt as with the consciousness of the locality of the note-book at that moment, which she was not yet prepared to tell him. But she consoled herself with the thought that she would tell him one day.
Strangely however, Ralph did not seem to care much about the book, so Winsome changed the subject to one of greater interest.
‘And what else did you think about me that first day?—tell me,’ said Winsome, shamelessly.
It was Ralph's opportunity.
‘Why, you know very well, Winsome dear, that ever since the day I first saw you I have thought that there never was any one like you—’
‘Yes?’ said Winsome, with a rising inflection in her voice.
‘I ever thought you the best and the kindest—’
‘Yes?’ said Winsome, a little breathlessly.
‘The most helpful and the wisest—’
‘Yes?’ said Winsome.
‘And the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life!’
‘Then I do not care for anything else!’ cried Winsome, clapping her hands. She had been resolving to learn Hebrew five minutes before.
‘Nor do I, really,’ said Ralph, speaking out the inmost soul that is in every young man.
As Ralph Peden sat looking at Winsome the thought came sometimes to him—but not often—‘This is Allan Welsh's daughter, the daughter of the woman whom my father once loved, who lies so still under the green sod of Crossthwaite beneath the lea of Skiddaw.’
He looked at her eyes, deep blue like the depths of the Mediterranean Sea, and, like it, shot through with interior light.
‘What are you thinking of?’ asked Winsome, who had also meanwhile been looking at him.
‘Of your eyes, dear!’ said Ralph, telling half the truth—a good deal for a lover.
Winsome paused for further information, looking into the depths of his soul. Ralph felt as though his heart and judgment were being assaulted by storming parties. He looked into these wells of blue and saw the love quivering in them as the broken light quivers, deflected on its way through clear water to a sea bottom of golden sand.
‘You want to hear me tell you something wiser,’ said Ralph, who did not know everything; ‘you are bored with my foolish talk.’
And he would have spoken of the hopes of his future.
‘No, no; tell me—tell me what you see in my eyes,’ said Winsome, a little impatiently.
‘Well then, first,’ said truthful Ralph, who certainly did not flinch from the task, ‘I see the fairest thing God made for man to see. All the beauty of the world, losing its way, stumbled, and was drowned in the eyes of my love. They have robbed the sunshine, and stolen the morning dew. The sparkle of the light on the water, the gladness of a child when it laughs because it lives, the sunshine which makes the butterflies dance and the world so beautiful—all these I see in your eyes.’
‘This story is plainly impossible. This practical girl was not one to find pleasure in listening to flattery. Let us read no more in this book.’ This is what some wise people will say at this point. So, to their loss will they close the book. They have not achieved all knowledge. The wisest woman would rather hear of her eyes than of her mind. There are those who say the reverse, but then perhaps no one has ever had cause to tell them concerning what lies hid in their eyes.
Many had wished to tell Winsome these things, but to no one hitherto had been given the discoverer's soul, the poet's voice, the wizard's hand to bring the answering love out of the deep sea of divine possibilities in which the tides ran high and never a lighthouse told of danger.
‘Tell me more,’ said Winsome, being a woman, as well as fair and young. These last are not necessary; to desire to be told about one's eyes, it is enough to be a woman.
Ralph looked down. In such cases it is necessary to refresh the imagination constantly with the facts. As in the latter days wise youths read messages from the quivering needle of the talking machine, so Ralph read his message flash by flash as it pulsated upward from a pure woman's soul.
‘Once you would not tell me why your eyelashes were curled up at the ends,’ said this eager Columbus of a new continent, drawing the new world nearer his heart in order that his discoveries might be truer, surer, in detail more trustworthy. ‘I know now without telling. Would you like to know, Winsome?’
Winsome drew a happy breath, nestling a little closer—so little that no one but Ralph would have known. But the little shook him to the depths of his soul. This it is to be young and for the first time mastering the geography of an unknown and untraversed continent. The unversed might have thought that light breath a sigh, but no lover could have made the mistake. It is only in books, wordy and unreal, that lovers misunderstand each other in that way.
‘I know,’ said Ralph, needing no word of permission to proceed, ‘it is with touching your cheek when you sleep.’
‘Then I must sleep a very long time!’ said Winsome merrily, making light of his words.
‘Underneath in the dark of either eye,’ continued Ralph, who, be it not forgotten, was a poet, ‘I see two young things like cherubs.’
‘I know,’ said Winsome; ‘I see myself in your eyes—you see yourself in mine.’
She paused to note the effect of this tremendous discovery.
‘Then,’ replied Ralph, ‘if it be indeed my own self I see in your eyes, it is myself as God made me at first without sin. I do not feel at all like a cherub now, but I must have been once, if I ever was like what I see in your eyes.’
‘Now go on; tell me what else you see,’ said Winsome.
‘Your lips—’ began Ralph, and paused.
‘No, six is quite enough,’ said Winsome, after a little while, mysteriously. She had only two, and Ralph only two; yet she said with little grammar and no sense at all, ‘Six is enough.’
But a voice from quite other lips came over the rising background of scrub and tangled thicket.
‘Gang on coortin',’ it said; ‘I'm no lookin', an' I canna see onything onyway.’
It was Jock Gordon. He continued:
‘Jock Scott's gane hame till his breakfast. He'll no bother ye this mornin', sae coort awa'.’
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.