ALONG THE WAYSIDE
As Ralph Peden came along the dusty Cairn Edward road from the coach which had set him down there on its way to the Ferry town, he paused to rest in the evening light at the head of the Long Wood of Larbrax. Here, under boughs that arched the way, he took from his shoulders his knapsack, filled with Hebrew and Greek books, and rested his head on the larger bag of roughly tanned Westland leather, in which were all his other belongings. They were not numerous. He might, indeed, have left both his bags for the Dullarg carrier on Saturday, but to lack his beloved books for four days was not to be thought of for a moment by Ralph Peden. He would rather have carried them up the eight long miles to the manse of the Dullarg one by one.
As he sat by the tipsy milestone, which had swayed sidelong and lay half buried amid the grass and dock leaves, a tall, dark girl came by—half turning to look at the young man as he rested. It was Jess Kissock, from the Herd's House at Craig Ronald, on her way home from buying trimmings for a new hat. This happened just twice a year, and was a solemn occasion.
‘Is this the way to the manse of Dullarg?’ asked the young man, standing up with his hat in his hand, the brim just beneath his chin. He was a handsome young man when he stood up straight.
Jess looked at him attentively. They did not speak in that way in her country, nor did they take their hats in their hands when they had occasion to speak to young women.
‘I am myself going past the Dullarg,’ she said, and paused with a hiatus like an invitation.
Ralph Peden was a simple young man, but he rose and shouldered his knapsack without a word. The slim, dark-haired girl with the bright, quick eyes like a bird, put out her hand to take a share of the burden of Ralph's bag.
‘Thank you, but I am quite able to manage it myself,’ he said, ‘I could not think of letting you put your hand to it.’
‘I am not a fine lady,’ said the girl, with a little impatient movement of her brows, as if she had stamped her foot. ‘I am nothing but a cottar's lassie.’
‘But then, how comes it that you speak as you do?’ asked Ralph.
‘I have been long in England—as a lady's maid,’ she answered with a strange, disquieting look at him. She had taken one side of the bag of books in spite of his protest, and now walked by Ralph's side through the evening coolness.
‘This is the first time you have been hereaway?’ his companion asked.
Ralph nodded a quick affirmative and smiled.
‘Then,’ said Jess Kissock, the rich blood mantling her dark cheeks, ‘I am the first from the Dullarg you have spoken to!’
‘The very first!’ said Ralph.
‘Then I am glad,’ said Jess Kissock. But in the young man's heart there was no answering gladness, though in very sooth she was an exceeding handsome maid.
Ralph Peden lay well content under a thorn bush above the Grannoch water. It was the second day of his sojourning in Galloway—the first of his breathing the heather scent on which the bees grew tipsy, and of listening to the grasshoppers chirring in the long bent by the loch side. Yesterday his father's friend, Allan Welsh, minister of the Marrow kirk in the parish of Dullarg, had held high discourse with him as to his soul's health, and made many inquiries as to how it sped in the great city with the precarious handful of pious folk, who gathered to listen to the precious and savoury truths of the pure Marrow teaching. Ralph Peden was charged with many messages from his father, the metropolitan Marrow minister, to Allan Welsh—dear to his soul as the only minister who had upheld the essentials on that great day, when among the assembled Presbyters so many had gone backward and walked no more with him.
‘Be faithful with the young man, my son,’ Allan Welsh read in the quaintly sealed and delicately written letter which his brother minister in Edinburgh had sent to him, and which Ralph had duly delivered in the square, grim manse of Dullarg, with a sedate and old-fashioned reverence which sat strangely on one of his years. ‘Be faithful with the young man,’ continued the letter; ‘he is well grounded on the fundamentals; his head is filled with godly lear, and he has sound views on the Headship; but he has always been a little cold and distant even to me, his father according to the flesh. With his companions he is apt to be distant and reserved. I am to blame for the solitude of our life here in James's Court, but to you I do not need to tell the reason of that. The Lord give you his guidance in leading the young man in the right way.’
So far Gilbert Peden's letter had run staidly and in character like the spoken words of the writer. But here it broke off. The writing, hitherto fine as a hair, thickened; and from this point became crowded and difficult, as though the floods of feeling had broken some dam. ‘O man Allan, for my sake, if at all you have loved me, or owe me anything, dig deep and see if the lad has a heart. He shews it not to me.’
So that is why Ralph Peden lies couched in the sparce bells of the ling, just where the dry, twisted timothy grasses are beginning to overcrown the purple bells of the heather. Tall and clean-limbed, with a student's pallor of clear-cut face, a slightly ascetic stoop, dark brown curls clustering over a white forehead, and eyes which looked steadfast and true, the young man was sufficient of a hero. He wore a broad straw hat, which he had a pleasant habit of pushing back, so that his clustering locks fell over his brow after a fashion which all women thought becoming. But Ralph Peden heeded not what women thought, said, or did, for he was trysted to the kirk of the Marrow, the sole repertory of orthodox truth in Scotland, which is as good as saying in the wide world—perhaps even in the universe.
Ralph Peden had dwelt all his life with his father in an old house in James's Court, Edinburgh, overlooking the great bounding circle of the northern horizon and the eastern sea. He had been trained by his father to think more of a professor's opinion on his Hebrew exercise than of a woman's opinion on any subject whatever. He had been told that women were an indispensable part of the economy of creation; but, though he accepted word by word the Westminster Confession, and as an inexorable addition the confessions and protests of the remnant of the true kirk in Scotland (known as the Marrow kirk), he could not but consider woman a poor makeshift, even as providing for the continuity of the race. Surely she had not been created when God looked upon all that he had made and found it very good. The thought preserved Ralph's orthodoxy.
Ralph Peden had come out into the morning air, with his note-book and a volume which he had been studying all the way from Edinburgh. As he lay at length among the grass he conned it over and over. He referred to passages here and there. He set out very calmly with that kind of determination with which a day's work in the open air with a book is often begun. Not for a moment did he break the monotony of his study. The marshalled columns of strange letters were mowed down before him.
A great humble-bee, barred with tawny orange, worked his way up from his hole in the bank, buzzing shrilly in an impatient, stifled manner at finding his dwelling blocked as to its exit by a mountainous bulk. Ralph Peden rose in a hurry. The beast seemed to be inside his coat. He had instinctively hated bees and everything that buzzed ever since as a child he had made experiments with the paper nest of a tree-building wasp. The humble-bee buzzed a little more, discontentedly, thought of going back, crept out at last from beneath the Hebrew Lexicon, and appeared to comb his hair with his feeler. Then he slowly mounted along the broad blade of a meadow fox-tail grass, which bent under him as if to afford him an elastic send-off upon his flight. With a spring he lumbered up, taking his way over the single field which separated his house from the edge of the Grannoch water—where on the other side, above the glistening sickle-sweep of sand which looked so inviting, yet untouched under the pines by the morning sun, the hyacinths lay like a blue wreath of peat smoke in the hollows of the wood.
But there was a whiff of real peat smoke somewhere in the air, and Ralph Peden, before he returned to his book, was aware of the murmur of voices. He moved away from the humble-bee's dwelling and established himself on a quieter slope under a bush of broom. A whin-chat said ‘check, check’ above him, and flirted a brilliant tail; but Ralph Peden was not afraid of whin-chats. Here he settled himself to study, knitting his brows and drumming on the ground with the toe of one foot to concentrate his attention. The whin-chat could hear him murmuring to himself at intervals, ‘Surely that is the sense—it must be taken this way.’ Sometimes, on the contrary, he shook his head at Luther's Commentary, which lay on the short, warm turf before him, as if in reproof. Ralph was of opinion that Luther, but for his great protective reputation, and the fact that he had been dead some time, might have been served with a libel for heresy—at least if he had ministered to the Marrow kirk.
Then after a little he pulled his hat over his eyes to think, and lay back till he could just see one little bit of Loch Grannoch gleaming through the trees, and the farm of Nether Crae set on the hillside high above it. He counted the sheep on the green field over the loch, numbering the lambs twice because they frisked irresponsibly about, being full of frivolity and having no opinions upon Luther to sober them.
Gradually a haze spun itself over the landscape, and Ralph Peden's head slowly fell back till it rested somewhat sharply upon a spikelet of prickly whin. His whole body sat up instantly, with an exclamation which was quite in Luther's manner. He had not been sleeping. He rejected the thought; yet he acknowledged that it was nevertheless passing strange that, just where the old single- arched bridge takes a long stride over the Grannoch lane, there was now a great black pot a-swing above a blinking pale fire of peats and fir-branches, and a couple of great tubs set close together on stones which he had not seen before. There was, too, a ripple of girls' laughter, which sent a strange stirring of excitement along the nerves of the young man. He gathered his books to move away; but on second thoughts, looking through the long, swaying tendrils of the broom under which he sat, he resolved to remain. After all, the girls might be as harmless as his helper of yesterday.
‘Yet it is most annoying,’ he said; ‘I had been quieter in James's Court.’
Still he smiled a little to himself, for the broom did not grow in James's Court, nor the blackbirds flute their mellow whistle there.
Loch Grannoch stretched away three miles to the south, basking in alternate blue and white, as cloud and sky mirrored themselves upon it. The first broad rush of the ling was climbing the slopes of the Crae Hill above —a pale lavender near the loch-side, deepening to crimson on the dryer slopes where the heath-bells grew shorter and thicker together. The wimpling lane slid as silently away from the sleeping loch as though it were eloping and feared to awake an angry parent. The whole range of hill and wood and water was drenched in sunshine. Silence clothed it like a garment—save only for the dark of the shadow under the bridge, from whence had come that ring of girlish laughter which had jarred upon the nerves of Ralph Peden.
Suddenly there emerged from the indigo shade where the blue spruces overarched the bridge a girl carrying two shining pails of water. Her arms were bare, her sleeves being rolled high above her elbow; and her figure, tall and shapely, swayed gracefully to the movement of the pails. Ralph did not know before that there is an art in carrying water. He was ignorant of many things, but even with his views on woman's place in the economy of the universe, he could not but be satisfied with the fitness and the beauty of the girl who came up the path, swinging her pails with the compensatory sway of lissom body, and that strong outward flex of the elbow which kept the brimming cans swinging in safety by her side.
Ralph Peden never took his eyes off her as she came, the theories of James's Court notwithstanding. Nor indeed need we for a little. For this is Winifred, better known as Winsome Charteris, a very important young person indeed, to whose beauty and wit the poets of three parishes did vain reverence; and, what she might well value more, whose butter was the best (and commanded the highest price) of any that went into Dumfries market on Wednesdays.
Fair hair, crisping and tendrilling over her brow, swept back in loose and flossy circlets till caught close behind her head by a tiny ribbon of blue—then again escaping it went scattering and wavering over her shoulders wonderingly, like nothing on earth but Winsome Charteris's hair. It was small wonder that the local poets grew grey before their time in trying to find a rhyme for ‘sunshine,’ a substantive which, for the first time, they had applied to a girl's hair. For the rest, a face rather oval than long, a nose which the schoolmaster declared was ‘statuesque’ (used in a good sense, he explained to the village folk, who could never be brought to see the difference between a statue and an idol—the second commandment being of literal interpretation along the Loch Grannoch side), and eyes which, emulating the parish poet, we can only describe as like two blue waves when they rise just far enough to catch a sparkle of light on their crests. The subject of her mouth, though tempting, we refuse to touch. Its description has already wrecked three promising reputations.
But withal Winsome Charteris set her pails as frankly and plumply on the ground, as though she were plain as a pike-staff, and bent a moment over to look into the gypsy-pot swung on its birchen triangle. Then she made an impatient movement of her hand, as if to push the biting fir-wood smoke aside. This angered Ralph, who considered it ridiculous and ill-ordered that a gesture which showed only a hasty temper and ill-regulated mind should be undeniably pretty and pleasant to look upon, just because it was made by a girl's hand. He was angry with himself, yet he hoped she would do it again. Instead, she took up one pail of water after the other, swung them upward with a single dexterous movement, and poured the water into the pot, from which the steam was rising. Ralph Peden could see the sunlight sparkle in the water as it arched itself solidly out of the pails. He was not near enough to see the lilac sprig on her light summer gown; but the lilac sunbonnet which she wore, principally it seemed in order that it might hang by the strings upon her shoulders, was to Ralph a singularly attractive piece of colour in the landscape. This he did not resent, because it is always safe to admire colour.
Ralph would have been glad to have been able to slip off quietly to the manse. He told himself so over and over again, till he believed it. This process is easy. But he saw very well that he could not rise from the lee of the whin bush without being in full view of this eminently practical and absurdly attractive young woman. So he turned to his Hebrew Lexicon with a sigh, and a grim contraction of determined brows which recalled his father. A country girl was nothing to the hunter after curious roots and the amateur of finely shaded significances in Piel and Pual.
‘I will not be distracted!’ Ralph said doggedly, though a Scot, correct for once in his grammar; and he pursued a recalcitrant particle through the dictionary like a sleuthhound.
A clear shrill whistle rang through the slumberous summer air.
‘Bless me,’ said Ralph, startled, ‘this is most discomposing!’
He raised himself cautiously on his elbow, and beheld the girl of the water-pails standing in the full sunshine with her lilac sunbonnet in her hand. She wared it high above her head, then she paused a moment to look right in his direction under her hand held level with her brows. Suddenly she dropped the sunbonnet, put a couple of fingers into her mouth in a manner which, if Ralph had only known it, was much admired of all the young men in the parish, and whistled clear and loud, so that the stone-chat fluttered up indignant and scurried to a shelter deeper among the gorse. A most revolutionary young person this. He regretted that the humble-bee had moved him nearer the bridge.
Ralph was deeply shocked that a girl should whistle, and still more that she should use two fingers to do it, for all the world like a shepherd on the hill. He bethought him that not one of his cousins, Professor Habakkuk Thriepneuk's daughters (who studied Chaldaeic with their father), would ever have dreamed of doing that. He imagined their horror at the thought, and a picture, compound of Jemima, Kezia, and Kerenhappuch, rose before him.
Down the hill, out from beneath the dark green solid foliaged elder bushes, there came a rush of dogs.
‘Save us,’ said Ralph, who saw himself discovered, ‘the deil's in the lassie; she'll have the dogs on me!’—an expression he had learned from John Bairdison, his father's ‘man,’ who in an unhallowed youth had followed the sea.
Then he would have reproved himself for the unlicensed exclamation as savouring of the ‘minced oath,’ had he not been taken up with watching the dogs. There were two of them. One was a large, rough deerhound, clean cut about the muzzle, shaggy everywhere else, which ran first, taking the hedges in his stride. The other was a small, short-haired collie, which, with his ears laid back and an air of grim determination not to be left behind, followed grimly after. The collie went under the hedges, diving instinctively for the holes which the hares had made as they went down to the water for their evening drink. Both dogs crossed to windward of him, racing for their mistress. When they reached the green level where the great tubs stood they leaped upon her with short sharp barks of gladness. She fended them off again with gracefully impatient hand; then bending low, she pointed to the loch-side a quarter of a mile below, where a herd of half a dozen black Galloway cows, necked with the red and white of the smaller Ayrshires, could be seen pushing its way through the lush heavy grass of the water meadow.
‘Away by there! Fetch them, Roger!’ she cried. ‘Haud at them—the kye's in the meadow!’
The dogs darted away level. The cows continued their slow advance, browsing as they went, but in a little while their dark fronts were turned towards the dogs as after a momentary indecision they recognized an enemy. With a startled rush the herd drove through the meadow and poured across the unfenced road up to the hill pasture which they had left, whose scanty grasses had doubtless turned slow bovine thoughts to the coolness of the meadow grass, and the pleasure of standing ruminant knee-deep in the river, with wavy tail nicking the flies in the shade.
For a little while Ralph Peden breathed freely again, but his satisfaction was short-lived. One girl was discomposing enough, but here were two. Moreover the new-comer, having arranged some blankets in a tub to her satisfaction, calmly tucked up her skirts in a professional manner and got bare-foot into the tub beside them. Then it dawned upon Ralph, who was not very instructed on matters of household economy, that he had chanced upon a Galloway blanket-washing; and that, like the gentleman who spied upon Musidora's toilet, of whom he had read in Mr. James Thomson's Seasons, he might possibly see more than he had come out to see.
Yet it was impossible to rise composedly and take his way manseward. Ralph wished now that he had gone at the first alarm. It had become so much more difficult now, as indeed it always does in such cases. Moreover, he was certain that these two vagabonds of curs would return. And they would be sure to find him out. Dogs were unnecessary and inconvenient beasts, always sniffing and nosing about. He decided to wait. The newcomer of the kilts was after all no Naiad or Hebe. Her outlines did not resemble to any marked degree the plates in his excellent classical dictionary. She was not short in stature, but so strong and of a complexion so ruddily beaming above the reaming white which filled the blanket tub, that her mirthful face shone like the sun through an evening mist.
But Ralph did not notice that, in so far as she could, she had relieved the taller maiden of the heavier share of the work; and that her laugh was hung on a hair trigger, to go off at every jest and fancy of Winsome Charteris. All this is to introduce Miss Meg Kissock, chief and favoured maidservant at the Dullarg farm, and devoted worshipper of Winsome, the young mistress thereof. Meg indeed, would have thanked no one for an introduction, being at all times well able (and willing) to introduce herself.
It had been a shock to Ralph Peden when Meg Kissock walked up from the lane-side barefoot, and when she cleared the decks for the blanket tramping. But he had seen something like it before on the banks of the water of Leith, then running clear and limpid over its pebbles, save for a flour-mill or two on the lower reaches. But it was altogether another thing when, plain as print, he saw his first goddess of the shining water-pails sit calmly down on the great granite boulder in the shadow of the bridge, and take one small foot in her hand with the evident intention of removing her foot-gear and occupying the second tub.
The hot blood surged in responsive shame to Ralph Peden's cheeks and temples. He started up. Meg Kissock was tramping the blankets rhythmically, holding her green kirtle well up with both hands, and singing with all her might. The goddess of the shining pails was also happily unconscious, with her face to the running water. Ralph bent low and hastened through a gap in the fence towards the shade of the elder bushes on the slope. He did not run—he has never acknowledged that; but he certainly came almost indistinguishably near it. As soon, however, as he was really out of sight, he actually did take to his heels and run in the direction of the manse, disconcerted and demoralized.
The dogs completed his discomfiture, for they caught sight of his flying figure and gave chase—contenting themselves, however, with pausing on the hillside where Ralph had been lying, with indignant barkings and militant tails high crested in air.
Winsome Charteris went up to the broom bushes which fringed the slope to find out what was the matter with Tyke and Roger. When she got there, a slim black figure was just vanishing round the white bend of the Far Away Turn. Winsome whistled low this time, and without putting even one finger into her mouth.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.