chapter thirty one
THE STUDY OF THE MANSE OF DULLARG
It was growing slowly dusk again when Ralph Peden returned from visiting Craig Ronald along the shore road to the Dullarg and its manse. He walked briskly, as one who has good news. Sometimes he whistled to himself—breaking off short with a quick smile at some recollection. Once he stopped and laughed aloud. Then he threw a stone at a rook which eyed him superciliously from the top of a turf dyke. He made a bad shot, at which the black critic wiped the bare butt of his bill upon the grass, uttered a hoarse ‘A-ha!’ of derision, and plunged down squatty among the dock- leaves on the other side.
As Ralph turned up the manse loaning to the bare front door, he was conscious of a vague uneasiness, the feeling of a man who returns to a house of gloom from a world where all things have been full of sunshine. It was not the same world since yesterday. Even he, Ralph Peden, was not the same man. But he entered the house with that innocent affectation of exceeding ease which is the boy's tribute to his own inexperience. He went up the stairs through the dark lobby and entered Allan Welsh's study. The minister was sitting with his back to the window, his hands clasped in front of him, and his great domed forehead and emaciated features standing out against the orange and crimson pool of glory where the sun had gone down.
Ralph ostentatiously clattered down his armful of books on the table. The minister did not speak at first, and Ralph began his explanation.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, hesitating and blushing under the keen eyes of his father's friend. ‘I had no idea I should have been detained, but the truth is—’
‘I ken what the truth is,’ said Allan Welsh, quietly. ‘Sit down, Ralph Peden. I have somewhat to say to you.’
A cold chill ran through the young man's veins, to which succeeded a thrill of indignation. Was it possible that he was about to reproach him, as a student in trials for the ministry of the Marrow kirk, with having behaved in any way unbecoming of an aspirant to that high office, or left undone anything expected of him as his father's son?
The minister was long in speaking. Against the orange light of evening which barred the window, his face could not be seen, but Ralph had the feeling that his eyes, unseen themselves, were reading into his very soul. He sat down and clenched his hands under the table,
‘I was at the Bridge of Grannoch this day,’ began the minister at last. ‘I was on my way to visit a parishioner, but I do not conceal from you that I also made it my business to observe your walk and conversation.’
‘By what right do you so speak to me?’ began Ralph, the hotter blood of his mother rising within him.
‘By the right given to me by your father to study your heart and to find out whether indeed it is seeking to walk in the more perfect way. By my love and regard for you, I hope I may also say.’
The minister paused, as if to gather strength for what he had yet to say. He leaned his head upon his hand, and Ralph did not see that his frail figure was shaken with some emotion too strong for his physical powers, only kept in check by the keen and indomitable will within.
‘Ralph, my lad,’ Allan Welsh continued, ‘do not think that I have not foreseen this; and had your father written to inform me of his intention to send you to me, I should have urged him to cause you to abide in your own city. What I feared in thought is in act come to pass. I saw it in your eyes yestreen.’
Ralph's eyes spoke an indignant query.
‘Ralph Peden,’ said the minister, ‘since I came here, eighteen years ago, not a mouse has crept out of Craig Ronald but I have made it my business to know it. I am no spy, and yet I need not to be told what happened yesterday or today.’
‘Then, sir, you know that I have no need to be ashamed.’
‘I have much to say to you, Ralph, which I desire to say by no means in anger. But first let me say this: It is impossible that you can ever be more to Winifred Charteris than you are today.’
‘That is likely enough, sir, but I would like to know why in that case I am called in question.’ ‘Because I have been, more than twenty years ago, where you are today, Ralph Peden, I—even I— have seen eyes blue as those of Winsome Charteris kindle with pleasure at my approach. Yes, I have known it. And I have also seen the lids lie white and still upon these eyes, and I am here to warn you from the primrose way; and also, if need be, to forbid you to walk therein.’
His voice took a sterner tone with the last words.
Ralph bowed his head on the table and listened; but there was no feeling save resentment and resistance in his heart.
The minister went on in a level, unemotional tone, like one telling a tale of long ago, of which the issues and even the interests are dead and gone.
‘I do not look now like a man on whom the eye of woman could ever rest with the abandonment of love. Yet I, Allan Welsh, have seen 'the love that casteth out fear.'
After a pause the high, expressionless voice took up the tale.
‘Many years ago there were two students, poor in money but rich in their mutual love. They were closer in affection than twin brothers. The elder was betrothed to be married to a beautiful girl in the country; so he took down his friend with him to the village where the maid dwelt to stand by his side and look upon the joy of the bridegroom. He saw the trysted (betrothed) of his friend. He and she looked into one another's eyes and were drawn together as by a power beyond them. The elder was summoned suddenly back to the city, and for a week he, all unthinking, left the friends of his love together glad that they should know one another better. They walked together. They spoke of many things, ever returning back to speak of themselves. One day they held a book together till they heard their hearts beat audibly, and in the book read no more that day.
‘Upon the friend's return he found only an empty house and distracted parents. Bride and brother had fled. Word came that they had been joined by old Joseph Paisley, the Gretna Green 'welder,' without blessing of minister or kirk. Then they hid themselves in a little Cumbrian village, where for six years the unfaithful friend wrought for his wife—for so he deemed her—till in the late bitterness of bringing forth she died, that was the fairest of women and the unhappiest.’
The minister ceased. Outside the rain had come on in broad single drops, laying the dust on the road. Ralph could hear it pattering on the broad leaves of the plane-tree outside the window. He did not like to hear it. It sounded like a woman's tears.
But he could not understand how all this bore on his case. He was silenced and awed, but it was with the sight of a soul of a man of years and approved sanctity in deep apparent waters of sorrow.
The minister lifted his head and listened. In the ancient woodwork of the manse, somewhere in the crumbling wainscoting, the little boring creature called a death-watch ticked like the ticking of an old verge watch. Mr. Welsh broke off with a sudden causeless auger very appalling in one so sage and sober in demeanour.
‘There's that beast again!’ he said; ‘often have I thought it was ticking in my head. I have heard it ever since the night she died—’
‘I wonder at a man like you,’ said Ralph, ‘with your wisdom and Christian standing, caring for a worm—’
‘You're a very young man, and when you are older maybe you'll wonder at a deal fewer things,’ answered the minister with a kind of excited truculence very foreign to his habit, ‘for I myself am a worm and no man,’ he added dreamily. ‘And often I tried to kill the beast. Ye see thae marks—’ he broke off again—‘I bored for it till the boards are a honeycomb, but the thing aye ticks on.’
‘But, Mr. Welsh,’ said Ralph eagerly, with some sympathy in his voice, ‘why should you trouble yourself about this story now—or I, for the matter of that? I can understand that Winsome Charteris has somehow to do with it, and that the knowledge has come to you in the course of your duty; but even if, at any future time, Winsome Charteris were aught to me or I to her—the which I have at present only too little hope of—her forbears, be they whomsoever they might, were no more to me than Julius Caesar. I have seen her and looked into her eyes. What needs she of ancestors that is kin to the angels?’
Something like pity came into the minister's stern eyes as he listened to the lad. Once he had spoken just such wild, heart-eager words.
‘I will answer you in a sentence,’ he said. ‘I that speak with you am the cause. I am he that has preached law and the gospel—for twenty years covering my sin with the Pharisee's strictness of observance. I am he that was false friend but never false lover— that married without kirk or blessing. I am the man that clasped a dead woman's hand whom I never owned as wife, and watched afar off the babe that I never dared to call mine own. I am the father of Winifred Charteris, coward before man, castaway before God. Of my sin two know besides my Maker—the father that begot you, whose false friend I was in the days that were, and Walter Skirving, the father of the first Winifred whose eyes this hand closed under the Peacock tree at Crossthwaite.’
The broad drops fell on the window-panes in splashes, and the thunder rain drummed on the roof.
The minister rose and went out, leaving Ralph Peden sitting in the dark with the universe in ruins about him. The universe is fragile at twenty-one.
And overhead the great drops fell from the brooding thunder- clouds, and in the wainscoting of Allan Welsh's study the death- watch ticked.
Comments are closed.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.