Winsome Charteris was a self-possessed maid, but undeniably her heart beat faster when she found on the brae face, beneath the bush of broom, two books the like of which she had never seen before, as well as an open notebook with writing upon it in the neatest and delicatest of hands. First, as became a prudent woman of experience, she went up to the top of the hill to assure herself that the owner of this strange treasure was not about to return. Then she carefully let down her high-kilted print dress till only her white feet ‘like little mice’ stole in and out. It did not strike her that this sacrifice to the conventions was just a trifle belated.
As she returned she said ‘Shoo!’ at every tangled bush, and flapped her apron as if to scare whatever curious wild fowl might have left behind it in its nest under the broom such curious nest- eggs as two great books full of strange, bewitched-looking printing, and a note-book of curious and interesting writings. Then, with a half sigh of disappointment, Winsome Charteris sat herself down to look into this matter. Meg Kissock from the bridge end showed signs of coming up to see what she was about; but Winsome imperiously checked the movement.
‘Bide where you are, Meg; I'll be down with you presently.’
She turned over the great Hebrew Bible reverently. ‘A. Welsh’ was written on the fly-leaf. She had a strange idea that she had seen it before. It seemed somehow thrillingly familiar.
‘That's the minister's Hebrew Bible book, no doubt,’ she said. ‘For that's the same kind of printing as between the double verses of the hundred-and-nineteenth Psalm in my grandfather's big Bible,’ she continued, sapiently shaking her head till the crispy ringlets tumbled about her eyes, and she had impatiently to toss them aside.
She laid the Bible down and peeped into the other strange-looking book. There were single words here of the same kind as in the other, but the most part was in ordinary type, though in a language of which she could make nothing. The note-book was a resource. It was at least readable, and Winsome Charteris began expectantly to turn it over. But something stirred reprovingly in her heart. It seemed as if she were listening to a conversation not meant for her. So she kept her finger on the leaf, but did not turn it.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I will not read it. It is not meant for me.’ Then, after a pause, ‘At least I will only read this page which is open, and then look at the beginning to see whose it is; for, you know, I may need to send it back to him.’ The back she had seen vanish round the Far Away Turn demanded the masculine pronoun.
She lifted the book and read:
‘Alas!’ (so ran the writing, fluent and clear, small as printer's type, Ralph Peden's beautiful Hellenic script), ‘alas, that the good qualities of the housewives of Solomon's days are out of date and forgotten in these degenerate times! Women, especially the younger of them, are become gadabouts, chatterers in the public ways, idle, adorners of their vain selves, pamperers of their frail tabernacles—’
Winsome threw down the book and almost trod upon it as upon a snake.
‘'Tis some city fop,’ she said, stamping her foot, ‘who is tired of the idle town dames. I wonder if he has ever seen the sun rise or done a day's work in his life? If only I had the wretch! But I will read no more!’
In token of the sincerity of the last assertion, she picked up the note-book again. There was little more to read. It was at this point that the humble-bee had startled the writer.
But underneath there were words faintly scrawled in pencil: ‘Must concentrate attention’—‘The proper study of mankind is’—this last written twice, as if the writer were practising copy-lines absently. Then at the very bottom was written, so faintly that hardly any eyes but Winsome's could have read the words:
‘Of all colours I do love the lilac. I wonder all maids do not wear gear of that hue!’
‘Oh!’ said Winsome Charteris quickly.
Then she gathered up the books very gently, and taking a kerchief from her neck, she folded the two great books within it, fastening them with a cunning knot. She was carrying them slowly up towards the farm town of Craig Ronald in her bare arms when Ralph Peden sat answering his catechism in the study at the manse. She entered the dreaming courtyard, and walked sedately across its silent sun- flooded spaces without a sound. She passed the door of the cool parlour where her grandfather and grandmother sat, the latter with her hands folded and her great tortoiseshell spectacles on her nose, taking her afternoon nap. A volume of Waverley lay beside her. Into her own white little room Winsome went, and laid the bundle of books in the bottom of the wall-press, which was lined with sheets of the Cairn Edward Miscellany. She looked at it some time before she shut the door.
‘His name is Ralph,’ she said. ‘I wonder how old he is—I shall know tomorrow, because he will come back; but—I would like to know tonight.’
She sighed a little—so light a breath that it was only the dream of a sigh. Then she looked at the lilac sunbonnet, as if it ought to have known.
‘At any rate he has very good taste,’ she said.
But the lilac sunbonnet said never a word.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.