Indeed, Ralph was in a sorrowful quandary. He knew that it was all true, and he saw no way out of it without pain and grief to some. But the thought of Winsome's cry came to him, heard in the lonesome night. That appeal had severed him in a moment from all his old life. He could not, though he were to lose heaven and earth, leave her now to reproach and ignominy. She had claimed him only in her utter need, and he would stand good, lover and friend to be counted on, till the world should end.
"It is true what you say," said Ralph; "I mourn for it every word, but I cannot and will not submit my conscience and my heart to the keeping even of the Marrow kirk."
"Ye should have thought on that sooner," interjected the minister grimly.
"God gave me my affections as a sacred trust. This also is part of my religion. And I will not, I cannot in any wise give up hope of winning this girl whom I love, and whom you above all others ought surely to love."
"Then," said the minister, rising solemnly with his hand outstretched as when he pronounced the benediction, "I, Allan Welsh, who love you as my son, and who love my daughter more than ten daughters who bear no reproach, tell you, Ralph Peden, that I can no longer company with you. Henceforth I count you as a rebel and a stranger. More than self, more than life, more than child or wife, I, sinner as I am, love the honour and discipline of the kirk of the Marrow. Henceforth you and I are strangers."
The words fired the young man. He took up his hat, which had fallen upon the floor.
"If that be so, the sooner that this house is rid of the presence of a stranger and a rebel the better for it, and the happier for you. I thank you for all the kindness you have shown to me, and I bid you, with true affection and respect, farewell!"
So, without wailing even to go up-stairs for anything belonging to him, and with no further word on either side, Ralph Peden stepped into the clear, sobering midnight, the chill air meeting him like a wall. The stars had come out and were shining frosty-clear, though it was June.
And as soon as he was gone out the minister fell on his knees, and so continued all the night praying with his face to the earth.
JOCK GORDON TAKES A HAND.
Whatever is too precious, too tender, too good, too evil, too shameful, too beautiful for the day, happens in the night. Night is the bath of life, the anodyne of heartaches, the silencer of passions, the breeder of them too, the teacher of those who would learn, the cloak that shuts a man in with his own soul. The seeds of great deeds and great crimes are alike sown in the night. The good Samaritan doeth his good by stealth; the wicked one cometh and soweth his tares among the wheat. The lover and the lustful person, the thief and the thinker, the preacher and the poacher, are abroad in the night. In factories and mills, beside the ceaseless whirl of machinery, stand men to whom day is night and night day. In cities the guardians of the midnight go hither and thither with measured step under the drizzling rain. No man cares that they are lonely and cold. Yet, nevertheless, both light and darkness, night and day, are but the accidents of a little time. It is twilight—the twilight of the morning and of the gods—that is the true normal of the universe. Night is but the shadow of the earth, light the nearness of the central sun. But when the soul of man goeth its way beyond the confines of the little multiplied circles of the system of the sun, it passes at once into the dim twilight of space, where for myriads of myriad miles there is only the grey of the earliest God's gloaming, which existed just so or ever the world was, and shall be when the world is not. Light and dark, day and night, are but as the lights of a station at which the train does not stop. They whisk past, gleaming bright but for a moment, and the world which came out of great twilight plunges again into it, perhaps to be remade and reillumined on some eternal morning.
It is good for man, then, to be oftentimes abroad in the early twilight of the morning. It is primeval-instinct with possibilities of thought and action. Then, if at all, he will get a glimpse into his soul that may hap to startle him. Judgment and the face of God justly angry seem more likely and actual things than they do in the city when the pavements are thronged and at every turning some one is ready for good or evil to hail you "fellow."
So Ralph Peden stepped out into the night, the sense of injustice quick upon him. He had no plans, but only the quick resentments of youth, and the resolve to stay no longer in a house where he was an unwelcome guest. He felt that he had been offered the choice between his career and unfaithfulness to the girl who had trusted him. This was not quite so; but, with the characteristic one- sidedness of youth, that was the way that he put the case to himself.
It was the water-shed of day and night when Ralph set out from the Dullarg manse. He had had no supper, but he was not hungry. Naturally his feet carried him in the direction of the bridge, whither he had gone on the previous evening and where amid an eager press of thoughts he had waited and watched for his love. When he got there he sat down on the parapet and looked to the north. He saw the wimples of the lazy Grannoch Lane winding dimly through their white lily beds. In the starlight the white cups glimmered faintly up from their dark beds of leaves. Underneath the bridge there was only a velvety blackness of shadow.
What to do was now the question. Plainly he must at once go to Edinburgh, and see his father. That was the first certainty. But still more certainly he must first see Winsome, and, in the light of the morning and of her eyes, solve for her all the questions which must have sorely puzzled her, at the same time resolving his own perplexities. Then he must bid her adieu. Right proudly would he go to carve out a way for her. He had no doubts that the mastership in his old school, which Dr. Abel had offered him a month ago, would still be at his disposal. That Winsome loved him truly he did not doubt. He gave no thought to that. The cry across the gulf of air from the high march dyke by the pines on the hill, echoing down to the bridge in the valley of the Grannoch, had settled that question once for all.
As he sat on the bridge and listened to the ripple of the Grannoch lane running lightly over the shallows at the Stepping Stones, and to the more distant roar of the falls of the Black Water, he shaped out a course for himself and for Winsome. He had ceased to call her Winsome Charteris. "She," he called her—the only she. When next he gave her a surname he would call her Winsome Peden. Instinctively he took off his hat at the thought, as though he had opened a door and found himself light-heartedly and suddenly in a church.
Sitting thus on the bridge alone and listening to the ocean-like lapse of his own thoughts, as they cast up the future and the past like pebbles at his feet, he had no more thought of fear for his future than he had that first day at Craig Ronald, under the whin- bushes on the ridge behind him, on that day of the blanket-washing so many ages ago. He was so full of love that it had cast out fear.
Suddenly out of the gloom beneath the bridge upon which he was sitting, dangling his legs, there came a voice.
"Maister Ralph Peden, Maister Ralph Peden."
Ralph nearly fell backward over the parapet in his astonishment.
"Who is that calling on me?" he asked in wonder.
"Wha but juist daft Jock Gordon? The hangman haesna catchit him yet, an' thank ye kindly—na, nor ever wull."
"Where are you, Jock, man?" said Ralph, willing to humour the instrument of God.
"The noo I'm on the shelf o' the brig; a braw bed it maks, if it is raither narrow. But graund practice for the narrow bed that I'll get i' the Dullarg kirkyaird some day or lang, unless they catch puir Jock and hang him. Na, na," said Jock with a canty kind of content in his voice, "they may luik a lang while or they wad think o' luikin' for him atween the foundation an' the spring o' the airch. An' that's but yin o' Jock Gordon's hidie holes, an' a braw an' guid yin it is. I hae seen this bit hole as fu' o' pairtricks and pheasants as it could hand, an' a' the keepers and their dowgs smellin', and them could na find it oot. Na, the water taks awa' the smell."
"Are ye not coming out, Jock?" queried Ralph.
"That's as may be," said Jock briefly. "What do ye want wi' Jock?"
"Come up," said Ralph; "I shall tell you how ye can help me. Ye ken that I helped you yestreen."
"Weel, ye gied me an unco rive aff that blackguard frae the Castle, gin that was a guid turn, I ken na!"
So grumbling, Jock Gordon came to the upper level of the bridge, paddling unconcernedly with his bare feet and ragged trousers through the shallows.
"Weel, na—hae ye a snuff aboot ye, noo that I am here? No—dear sirce, what wad I no do for a snuff?"
"Jock," said Ralph, "I shall have to walk to Edinburgh. I must start in the morning."
"Ye'll hae plenty o' sillar, nae doot?" said Jock practically.
Ralph felt his pockets. In that wild place it was not his custom to carry money, and he had not even the few shillings which were in his purse at the manse.
"I am sorry to say," he said, "that I have no money with me."
"Then ye'll be better o' Jock Gordon wi' ye?" said Jock promptly.
Ralph saw that it would not do to be saddled with Jock in the city, where it might be necessary for him to begin a new career immediately; so he gently broke the difficulties to Jock.
"Deed na, ye needna be feared; Jock wadna set a fit in a toon. There's ower mony nesty imps o' boys, rinnin' an' cloddin' stanes at puir Jock, forby caa'in' him names. Syne he loses his temper wi' them an' then he micht do them an injury an' get himsel' intil the gaol. Na, na, when Jock sees the blue smoor o' Auld Reeky gaun up into the lift he'll turn an' gae hame."
"Well, Jock," said Ralph, "it behooves me to see Mistress Winsome before I go. Ye ken she and I are good friends."
"So's you an' me; but had puir Jock no cried up till ye, ye wad hae gane aff to Embra withoot as muckle as 'Fairguide'en to ye, Jock.'"
"Ah, Jock, but then you must know that Mistress Charteris and I are lad and lass," he continued, putting the case as he conceived in a form that would suit it to Jock's understanding.
"Lad an' lass! What did ye think Jock took ye for? This is nane o' yer Castle tricks," he said; "mind, Jock can bite yet!"
"No, no, Jock, you need not be feared. She and I are going to be married some day before very long"—a statement made entirely without authority.
"Hoot, hoot!" said Jock, "wull nocht ser' ye but that ava—a sensible man like you? In that case ye'll hae seen the last o' Jock Gordon. I canna be doin' wi' a gilravage o' bairns aboot a hoose—"
"Jock," said Ralph earnestly, "will you help me to see her before I go?"
"'Deed that I wull," said Jock, very practically. "I'll gaun an' wauken her the noo!"
"You must not do that," said Ralph, "but perhaps if you knew where Meg Kissock slept, you might tell her."
"Certes, I can that," said Jock; "I can pit my haund on her in a meenit. But mind yer, when ye're mairret, dinna expect Jock Gordon to come farther nor the back kitchen."
So grumbling, "It couldna be expeckit—I canna be doin' wi' bairns ava'—"Jock took his way up the long loaning of Craig Ronald, followed through the elderbushes by Ralph Peden.
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'."
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 to-morrow?" 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 to-morrow, 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.
OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWA'.
Winsome came back to a quiet Craig Ronald. The men were in the field. The farmsteading was hushed, Meg not to be seen, the dogs silent, the bedroom blind undrawn when she entered to find the key in the door. She went within instantly and threw herself down upon the bed. Outside, the morning sun strengthened and beat on the shining white of the walls of Craig Ronald, and on Ralph far across the moors.
Winsome must wait. We shall follow Ralph. It is the way of the world at any rate. The woman always must wait and nothing said. With the man are the keen interests of the struggle, the grip of opposition, the clash of arms. With the woman, naught worth speaking of—only the silence, the loneliness, and waiting.
Ralph went northward wearing Winsome's parting kiss on his brow like an insignia of knighthood. It meant much to one who had never gone away before. So simple was he that he did not know that there are all-experiencing young men who love and sail away, clearing as they go the decks of their custom-staled souls for the next action.
He stumbled, this simple knight, blindly into the ruts and pebbly water courses down which the winter rains had rushed, tearing the turf clean from the granite during the November and February rains.
So he journeyed onward, heedless of his going.
To him came Jock Gordon, skipping like a wild goat down the Bennan side.
"Hey, mon, d'ye want to drive intil Loch Ken? Ye wad mak' braw ged-bait. Haud up the hill, breest to the brae."
Through his trouble Ralph heard and instinctively obeyed. In a little while he struck the beautiful road which runs north and south along the side of the long loch of Ken. Now there are fairer bowers in the south sunlands. There are Highlands and Alp-lands of sky-piercing beauty. But to Galloway, and specially to the central glens and flanking desolations thereof, one beauty belongs. She is like a plain girl with beautiful eyes. There is no country like her in the world for colour—so delicately fresh in the rain- washed green of her pasture slopes, so keen the viridian [Footnote: Veronese green] of her turnip-fields when the dew is on the broad, fleshy, crushed leaves, so tender and deep the blue in the hollow places. It was small wonder that Ralph had set down in the note-book in which he sketched for future use all that passed under his eye:
"Hast thou seen the glamour that follows The falling of summer rain- The mystical blues in the hollows, The purples and greys on the plain?"
It is true that all these things were but the idle garniture of a tale that had lost its meaning to Ralph this morning; but yet in time the sense that the beauty and hope of life lay about him stole soothingly upon his soul. He was glad to breathe the gracious breaths of spraying honeysuckle running its creamy riot of honey-drenched petals over the hedges, and flinging daring reconnaissances even to the tops of the dwarf birches by the wayside.
So quickly Nature eased his smart, that—for such is the nature of the best men, even of the very best—at the moment when Winsome threw herself, dazed and blinded with pain, upon her low white bed in the little darkened chamber over the hill at Craig Ronald, Ralph was once more, even though with the gnaw of emptiness and loss in his heart, looking forward to the future, and planning what the day would bring to him on which he should return.
Even as he thought he began to whistle, and his step went lighter, Jock Gordon moving silently along the heather by his side at a dog's trot. Let no man think hardly of Ralph, for this is the nature of the man. It was not that man loves the less, but that with him in his daring initiative and strenuous endeavour the future lies.
The sooner, then, that he could compass and overpass his difficulties the more swiftly would his face be again set to the south, and the aching emptiness of his soul be filled with a strange and thrilling expectancy. The wind whistled in his face as he rounded the Bennan and got his first glimpse of the Kells range, stretching far away over surge after surge of heather and bent, through which, here and there, the grey teeth of the granite shone. It is no blame to him that, as he passed on from horizon to horizon, each step which took him farther and farther from Craig Ronald seemed to bring him nearer and nearer to Winsome. He was going away, yet with each mile he regained the rebounding spirit of youth, while Winsome lay dazed in her room at Craig Ronald. But let it not be forgotten that he went in order that no more she might so lie with the dry mechanic sobs catching ever and anon in her throat. So the world is not so ill divided, after all. And, being a woman, perhaps Winsome's grief was as dear and natural to her as Ralph's elastic hopefulness.
Soon Ralph and Jock Gordon were striding across the moors towards Moniaive. Ralph wished to breakfast at one of the inns in New Galloway, but this Jock Gordon would not allow. He did not like that kind o' folk, he said.
"Gie's tippens, an' that'll serve brawly," said Jock.
Ralph drew out Winsome's purse; he looked at it reverently and put it back again. It seemed too early, and too material a use of her love-token.
"Nae sillar in't?" queried Jock. "How's that? It looks brave and baggy."
"I think I will do without for the present," said Ralph.
"Aweel," said Jock, "ye may, but I'm gaun to hae my breakfast a' the same, sillar or no sillar."
In twenty minutes he was back by the dykeside, where he had left Ralph sitting, twining Winsome's purse through his fingers, and thinking on the future, and all that was awaiting him in Edinburgh town.
Jock seemed what he had called Winsome's purse—baggy.
Then he undid himself. From under the lower buttons of his long russet "sleeved waistcoat" with the long side flaps which, along with his sailor-man's trousers, he wore for all garment, he drew a barn-door fowl, trussed and cooked, and threw it on the ground. Now came a dozen farles of cake, crisp and toothsome, from the girdle, and three large scones raised with yeast.
Then followed, out of some receptacle not too strictly to be localized, half a pound of butter, wrapped in a cabbage-leaf, and a quart jug of pewter.
Ralph looked on in amazement.
"Where did you get all these?" he asked.
"Get them? Took them!" said Jock succinctly. "I gaed alang to Mistress MacMorrine's, an' says I, 'Guid-mornin' till ye, mistress, an' hoo's a' wi' ye the day?' for I'm a ceevil chiel when folks are ceevil to me."
"'Nane the better for seein' you, Jock Gordon,' says she, for she's an unceevil wife, wi' nae mair mainners nor gin she had just come ower frae Donnachadee—the ill-mainnered randy.
"'But,' says I, 'maybes ye wad be the better o' kennin' that the kye's eatin' your washin' up on the loan. I saw Provost Weir's muckle Ayreshire halfway through wi' yer best quilt,' says I.
"She flung up her hands.
"'Save us!' she cries; 'could ye no hae said that at first?'
"An' wi' that she ran as if Auld Hornie was at her tail, screevin' ower the kintra as though she didna gar the beam kick at twa hunderweicht guid."
"But was that true, Jock Gordon?" asked Ralph, astounded.
"True!—what for wad it be true? Her washin' is lyin' bleachin', fine an' siccar, but she get a look at it and a braw sweet. A race is guid exercise for ony yin that its as muckle as Luckie MacMorrine."
"But the provisions—and the hen?" asked Ralph, fearing the worst.
"They were on her back-kitchen table. There they are now," said Jock, pointing with his foot, as though that was all there was to say about the matter.
"But did you pay for them?" he asked.
"Pay for them! Does a dowg pay for a sheep's heid when he gangs oot o' the butcher's shop wi' yin atween his teeth, an' a twa-pund wecht playin' dirl on his hench-bane? Pay for't! Weel, I wat no! Didna yer honour tell me that ye had nae sillar, an' sae gaed it in hand to Jock?"
Ralph started up. This might be a very serious matter. He pulled out Winsome's purse again. In the end he tried first there was silver, and in the other five golden guineas in a little silken inner case. One of the guineas Ralph took out, and, handing it to Jock, he bade him gather up all that he had stolen and take his way back with them. Then he was to buy them from Luckie MacMorrine at her own price.
"Sic a noise aboot a bit trifle!" said Jock. "What's aboot a bit chuckle an' a heftin' o' cake? Haivers!"
But very quickly Ralph prevailed upon him, and Jock took the guinea. At his usual swift wolf's lope he was out of sight over the long stretches of heather and turf so speedily that he arrived at the drying-ground on the hillside before Luckie MacMorrine, handicapped by her twenty stone avoirdupois, had perspired thither.
Jock met her at the gate.
"Noo, mistress," exclaimed Jock, busily smoothing out the wrinkles and creases of a fine linen sheet, with "E. M. M." on the corner, "d'ye see this? I juist gat here in time, and nae mair. Ye see, thae randies o' kye, wi' their birses up, they wad sune hae seen the last o' yer bonny sheets an' blankets, gin I had letten them."
Mistress MacMorrine did not waste a look on the herd of cows, but proceeded to go over her washing with great care. Jock had just arrived in time to make hay of it, before the owner came puffing up the road. Had she looked at the cows curiously it might have struck her that they were marvellously calm for such ferocious animals. This seemed to strike Jock, for he went after them, throwing stones at them in the manner known as "henchin'" [jerking from the side], much practised in Galloway, and at which Jock was a remarkable adept. Soon he had them excited enough for anything, and pursued them with many loud outcryings till they were scattered far over the moor.
When he came back he said: "Mistress MacMorrine, I ken brawly that ye'll be wushin' to mak' me some sma' recompense for my trouble an' haste. Weel, I'll juist open my errand to ye. Ye see the way o't was this: There is twa gentlemen shooters on the moors, the Laird o' Balbletherum an' the Laird o' Glower-ower-'em-twa respectit an' graund gentlemen. They war wantin' some luncheon, but they were that busy shootin' that they hadna time to come, so they says to me, 'Jock Gordon, do ye ken an honest woman in this neighbourhood that can supply something to eat at a reasonable chairge?' 'Yes,' says I, 'Mistress MacMorrine is sic a woman, an' nae ither.' 'Do ye think she could pit us up for ten days or a fortnight?' says they. 'I doot na', for she's weel plenisht an' providit,' I says. 'Noo, I didna ken but ye micht be a lang time detained wi' the kye (as indeed ye wad hae been, gin I hadna come to help ye), an' as the lairds couldna be keepit, I juist took up the bit luncheon that I saw on your kitchie table, an' here it is, on its way to the wames o' the gentlemen—whilk is an honour till't.'"
Mistress MacMorrine did not seem to be very well pleased at the unceremonious way in which Jock had dealt with the contents of her larder, but the inducement was too great to be gainsaid.
"Ye'll mak' it reasonable, nae doot," said Jock, "sae as to gie the gentlemen a good impression. There's a' thing in a first impression."
"Tak' it till them an' welcome—wi' the compliments o' Mrs. MacMorrine o' the Blue Bell, mind an' say till them. Ye may consider it a recognition o' yer ain trouble in the matter o' the kye; but I will let the provost hear o't on the deafest side o' his heid when he ca's for his toddy the nicht."
"Thank ye, mistress," said Jock, quickly withdrawing with his purchases; "there's nocht like obleegements for makin' freends."
At last Ralph saw Jock coming at full speed over the moor.
He went forward to him anxiously.
"Is it all right?" he asked.
"It's a' richt, an' a' paid for, an' mair, gin ye like to send Jock for't; an' I wasna to forget Mistress MacMorrine's compliments to ye intil the bargain."
Ralph looked mystified.
"Ye wadna see the Laird o' Balbletherum? Did ye?" said Jock, cocking his impudent, elvish head to the side.
"Who is he?" asked Ralph.
"Nor yet the Laird o' Glower—ower—'em?"
"I have seen nobody from the time you went away," said Ralph.
"Then we'll e'en fa' to. For gin thae twa braw gentlemen arena here to partake o' the guid things o' this life, then there's the mair for you an' Jock Gordon."
Jock never fully satisfied Ralph's curiosity as to the manner in which he obtained this provender. Luckie Morrine bestowed it upon him for services rendered, he said; which was a true, though somewhat abbreviated and imperfect account of the transaction.
What the feelings of the hostess of the Blue Bell were when night passed without the appearance of the two lairds, for whom she had spread her finest sheets, and looked out her best bottles of wine, we have no means of knowing. Singularly enough, for some considerable time thereafter Jock patronized the "Cross Keys" when he happened to be passing that way. He "preferred it to the Blue Bell," he said.
UNDER THE BED HEATHER.
So refreshed, Ralph and Jock passed on their way. All the forenoon they plodded steadily forward. From Moniaive they followed the windings of a flashing burn, daching and roaring in a shallow linn, here and there white with foam and fretting, and again dimpling black in some deep and quiet pool. Through the ducal village of Thornhill and so northward along the Nithside towards the valley of the Menick they went. The great overlapping purple folds of the hills drew down about these two as they passed. Jock Gordon continually scoured away to either side like a dog fresh off the leash. Ralph kept steadily before him the hope in his heart that before long the deep cleft would be filled up and that for always.
It so happened that it was night when they reached the high summit of the Leadhills and the village of Wanlockhead gleamed grey beneath them. Ralph proposed to go down and get lodgings there; but Jock had other intentions.
"What for," he argued, "what for should ye pay for the breadth of yer back to lie doon on? Jock Gordon wull mak' ye juist as comfortable ablow a heather buss as ever ye war in a bed in the manse. Bide a wee!"
Jock took him into a sheltered little "hope," where they were shut in from the world of sheep and pit-heads.
With his long, broad-bladed sheath-knife Jock was not long in piling under the sheltered underside of a great rock over which the heather grew, such a heap of heather twigs as Ralph could hardly believe had been cut in so short a time. These he compacted into an excellent mattress, springy and level, with pliable interlacings of broom.
"Lie ye doon there, an' I'll mak' ye a bonnie plaidie," said Jock.
There was a little "cole" or haystack of the smallest sort close at hand. To this Jock went, and, throwing off the top layer as possibly damp, he carried all the rest in his arms and piled it on Ralph till he was covered up to his neck.
"We'll mak' a' snod [neat] again i' the mornin'!" he said. "Noo, we'll theek [thatch] ye, an' feed ye!" said Jock comprehensively. So saying, he put other layers of heather, thinner than the mattress underneath, but arranged in the same way, on the top of the hay.
"Noo ye're braw an' snug, are ye na'? What better wad ye hae been in a three-shillin' bed?"
Then Jock made a fire of broken last year's heather. This he carefully watched to keep it from spreading, and on it he roasted half a dozen plover's eggs which he had picked up during the day in his hillside ranging. On these high moors the moor-fowls go on laying till August. These being served on warmed and buttered scones, and sharpened with a whiff of mordant heather smoke, were most delicious to Ralph, who smiled to himself, well pleased under his warm covering of hay and overthatching of heather.
After each egg was supplied to him piping hot, Jock would say:
"An' isna that as guid as a half-croon supper?"
Then another pee-wit's egg, delicious and fresh—
"Luckie Morrine couldna beat that," said Jock.
There was a surprising lightness in the evening air, the elastic life of the wide moorland world settling down to rest for a couple of hours, which is all the night there is on these hill-tops in the crown of the year.
Jock Gordon covered himself by no means so elaborately as he had provided for Ralph, saying: "I hae covered you for winter, for ye're but a laddie; the like o' me disna need coverin' when the days follow yin anither like sheep jumpin' through a slap."
Ralph was still asleep when the morning came. But when the young sun looked over the level moors—for they were on the very top of the heathery creation—Jock Gordon made a little hillock of dewy heather to shelter Ralph from the sun. He measured at the same time a hand's breadth in the sky, saying to himself, "I'll wakken the lad when he gets to there!" He was speaking of the sun.
But before the flood of light overtopped the tiny break-water and shot again upon Ralph's face, he sat up bewildered and astonished, casting a look about him upon the moorland and its crying birds.
Jock Gordon was just coming towards him, having scoured the face of the ridge for more plover's eggs.
"Dinna rise," said Jock, "till I tak' awa' the beddin'. Ye see," continued the expert in camping out on hills, "the hay an' the heather gets doon yer neck an' mak's ye yeuk [itch] an' fidge a' day. An' at first ye mind that, though after a while gin ye dinna yeuk, ye find it michty oninterestin'!"
Ralph sat up. Something in Jock's bare heel as he sat on the grass attracted his attention.
"Wi', Jock," he said, infinitely astonished, "what's that in yer heel?"
"Ou!" said Jock, "it's nocht but a nail!"
"A nail!" said Ralph; "what are ye doin' wi' a nail in yer foot?"
"I gat it in last Martinmas," he said.
"But why do you not get it out? Does it not hurt?" said Ralph, compassionating.
"'Deed did it awhile at the first," said Jock, "but I got used to it. Ye can use wi' a'thing. Man's a wunnerful craitur!"
"Let me try to pull it out," said Ralph, shivering to think of the pain he must have suffered.
"Na, na, ye ken what ye hae, but ye dinna ken what ye micht get. I ken what I hae to pit up wi', wi' a nail in my fit; but wha kens what it micht be gin I had a muckle hole ye could pit yer finger in? It wadna be bonny to hae the clocks howkin' [beetles digging] and the birdies biggin' their nests i' my heel! Na, na, it's a guid lesson to be content wi' yer doon-settin', or ye may get waur!"
It was in the bright morning light that these two took the Edinburgh road, which clambered down over the hillsides by the village of Leadhills into the valley of the Clyde. Through Abingdon and Biggar they made their way, and so admirable were Jock's requisitioning abilities that Winsome's green purse was never once called into action.
When they looked from the last downward step of the Mid-Lothian table-land upon the city of Edinburgh, there was a brisk starting of smoke from many chimneys, for the wives of the burgesses were kindling their supper fires, and their husbands were beginning to come in with the expectant look of mankind about meal-time.
"Come wi' me, Jock, and I'll show ye Edinburgh, as ye have showed me the hills of heather!" This was Ralph's invitation.
"Na," said Jock, "an' thank ye kindly a' the same. There's muckle loons there that micht snap up a guid-lookin' lad like Jock, an' ship him ontill their nesty ships afore he could cry 'Mulquarchar and Craignell!' Jock Gordon may be a fule, but he kens when he's weel aff. Nae Auld Reekies for him, an' thank ye kindly. When he wants to gang to the gaol he'll steal a horse an' gang daicent! He'll no gang wi' his thoom in his mooth, an' when they say till him, 'What are ye here for?' be obleeged to answer, 'Fegs, an' I dinna ken what for!' Na, na, it wadna be mensefu' like ava'. A' the Gordons that ever was hae gaen to the gaol—but only yince. It's aye been a hangin' maitter, an' Jock's no the man to turn again the rule an' custom o' his forebears. 'Yince gang, yince hang,' is Jock's motto."
Ralph did not press the point. But he had some unexpected feeling in saying good-bye to Jock. It was not so easy. He tried to put three of Winsome's guineas into his hand, but Jock would have none of them.
"ME wi' gowden guineas!" he said. "Surely ye maun hae an ill-wull at puir Jock, that wusses ye weel; what wad ony body say gin I poo'ed out sic a lump of gowd? 'There's that loon Jock been breakin' somebody's bank,' an' then 'Fare-ye-weel, Kilaivie,' to Jock's guid name. It's gane, like his last gless o' whusky, never to return."
"But you are a long way from home, Jock; how will you get back?"
"Hoots, haivers, Maister Ralph, gin Jock has providit for you that needs a' things as gin ye war in a graund hoose, dinna be feared for Jock, that can eat a wamefu' o' green heather-taps wi' the dew on them like a bit flafferin' grouse bird. Or Jock can catch the muir-fowl itsel' an' eat it ablow a heather buss as gin he war a tod [fox]. Hoot awa' wi' ye! Jock can fend for himsel' brawly. Sillar wad only tak' the edge aff his genius."
"Then is there nothing that I can bring you from Edinburgh when I come again?" said Ralph, with whom the coming again was ever present.
"'Deed, aye, gin ye are so ceevil—it's richt prood I wad be o' a boxfu' o' Maister Cotton's Dutch sneeshin'—him that's i' the High Street—they say it's terrible graund stuff. Wullie Hulliby gat some when he was up wi' his lambs, an' he said that, after the first snifter, he grat for days. It maun be graund!"
Ralph promised, with gladness to find some way of easing his load of debt to Jock.
"Noo, Maister Ralph, it's a wanchancy [uncertain] place, this Enbra', an' I'll stap aff an' on till the morrow's e'en here or hereaboots, for sae it micht be that ye took a notion to gang back amang kent fowk, whaur ye wad be safe an' soun'."
"But, Jock," urged Ralph, "ye need not do that. I was born and brought up in Edinburgh!"
"That's as may be; gin I bena mista'en, there's a byous [extraordinary] heap o' things has happened since then. Gang yer ways, but gin ye hae message or word for Jock, juist come cannily oot, an' he'll be here till dark the morn."
BEFORE THE REFORMER'S CHAIR.
"The Lord save us, Maister Ralph, what's this?" said John Bairdieson, opening the door of the stair in James's Court. It was a narrow hall that it gave access to, more like a passage than a hall. "Hoo hae ye come? An' what for didna Maister Welsh or you write to say ye war comin'? An' whaur's a' the buiks an' the gear?" continued John Bairdieson.
"I have walked all the way, John," said Ralph. "I quarrelled with the minister, and he turned me to the door."
"Dear sirce!" said John anxiously, "was't ill-doing or unsound doctrine?"
"Mr. Welsh said that he could not company with unbelievers."
"Then it's doctrine—wae's me, wae's me! I wuss it had been the lasses. What wull his faither say? Gin it had been ill-doin', he micht hae pitten it doon to the sins o' yer youth; but ill- doctrine he canna forgie. O Maister Ralph, gin ye canna tell a lee yersel', wull ye no haud yer tongue—I can lee, for I'm but an elder—an' I'll tell him that at a kirn [harvest festival] ye war persuaded to drink the health o' the laird, an' you no bein' acquant wi' the strength o' Glenlivat—"
"John, John, indeed I cannot allow it. Besides, you're a sailor- man, an' even in Galloway they do not have kirns till the corn's ripe," replied Ralph with a smile.
"Aweel, can ye no say, or let me say for ye, gin ye be particular, that ye war a wee late oot at nicht seein' a bit lassie—or ocht but the doctrine? It wasna anything concernin' the fundamentals o' the Marrow, Maister Ralph, though, surely," continued John Bairdieson, whose elect position did not prevent him from doing his best for the interests of his masters, young and old. Indeed, to start with the acknowledged fact of personal election sometimes gives a man like John Bairdieson an unmistakable advantage. Ralph went to his own room, leaving John Bairdieson listening, as he prayed to be allowed to do, at the door of his father's room.
In a minute or two John Bairdieson came up, with a scared face.
"Ye're to gang doon, Maister Ralph, an' see yer faither. But, O sir, see that ye speak lown [calm] to him. He hasna gotten sleep for twa nichts, an' he's fair pitten by himsel' wi' thae ill-set Conformists—weary fa' them! that he's been in the gall o' bitterness wi'."
Ralph went down to his father's study. Knocking softly, he entered. His father sat in his desk chair, closed in on every side. It had once been the pulpit of a great Reformer, and each time that Gilbert Peden shut himself into it, he felt that he was without father or mother save and except the only true and proper Covenant-keeping doctrine in broad Scotland, and the honour and well-being of the sorely dwindled Kirk of the Marrow.
Gilbert Peden was a noble make of a man, larger in body though hardly taller than his son. He wore a dark-blue cloth coat with wide flaps, and the immense white neckerchief on which John Bairdieson weekly expended all his sailor laundry craft. His face was like his son's, as clear-cut and statuesque, though larger and broader in frame and mould. There was, however, a coldness about the eye and a downward compression of the lips, which speaks the man of narrow though fervid enthusiasms.
Ralph went forward to his father. As he came, his father stayed him with the palm of his hand, the finger-tips turned upward.
"Abide, my son, till I know for what cause you have left or been expelled from the house of the man to whom I committed you during your trials for license. Answer me, why have you come away from the house of Allan Welsh like a thief in the night?"
"Father," said Ralph, "I cannot tell you everything at present, because the story is not mine to tell. Can you not trust me?"
"I could trust you with my life and all that I possess," said his father; "they are yours, and welcome; but this is a matter that affects your standing as a probationer on trials in the kirk of the Marrow, which is of divine institution. The cause is not mine, my son. Tell me that the cause of your quarrel had nothing to do with the Marrow kirk and your future standing in it, and I will ask you no more till you choose to tell me of your own will concerning the matter."
The Marrow minister looked at his son with a gleam of tenderness forcing its way through the sternness of his words.
But Ralph was silent.
"It was indeed in my duty to the Marrow kirk that Mr. Welsh considered that I lacked. It was for this cause that he refused to company further with me."
Then there came a hardness as of grey hill stone upon the minister's face. It was not a pleasant thing to see in a father's face.
"Then," he said slowly, "Ralph Peden, this also is a manse of the Marrow kirk, and, though ye are my own son, I cannot receive ye here till your innocence is proven in the presbytery. Ye must stand yer trials."
Ralph bowed his head. He had not been unprepared for something like this, but the pain he might have felt at another time was made easier by a subtle anodyne. He hardly seemed to feel the smart as a week before he might have done. In some strange way Winsome was helping him to bear it—or her prayers for him were being answered.
John Bairdieson broke into the study, his grey hair standing on end, and the shape of the keyhole cover imprinted on his brow above his left eye. John could see best with his left eye, and hear best with his right ear, which he had some reason to look upon as a special equalization of the gifts of Providence, though not well adapted for being of the greatest service at keyholes.
"Save us, minister!" he burst out; "the laddie's but a laddie, an' na doot his pranks hae upset guid Maister Welsh a wee. Lads will be lads, ye ken. But Maister Ralph's soond on the fundamentals—I learned him the Shorter Questions mysel', sae I should ken—forbye the hunner an' nineteenth Psalm that he learned on my knee, and how to mak' a Fifer's knot, an' the double reef, an' a heap o' usefu' knowledge forbye; an' noo to tak' it into your heid that yer ain son's no soond in the faith, a' because he has fa'en oot wi' a donnert auld carle—"
"John," said the minister sternly, "leave the room! You have no right to speak thus of an honoured servant of the kirk of the Marrow."
Ralph could see through the window the light fading off the Fife Lomonds, and the long line of the shore darkening under the night into a more ethereal blue.
There came to him in this glimpse of woods and dewy pastures overseas a remembrance of a dearer shore. The steading over the Grannoch Loch stood up clear before him, the blue smoke going straight up, Winsome's lattice standing open with the roses peeping in, and the night airs breathing lovingly through them, airing it out as a bed-chamber for the beloved.
The thought made his heart tender. To his father he said:
"Father, will you not take my word that there is nothing wicked or disgraceful in what I have done? If it were my own secret, I would gladly tell you at once; but as it is, I must wait until in his own time Mr. Welsh communicates with you."
The minister, sitting in the Reformer's seat, pulling at his stern upper lip, winced; and perhaps had it not been for the pulpit the human in him might have triumphed. But he only said:
"I am quite prepared to support you until such time as at a meeting of the presbytery the matter be tried, but I cannot have in a Marrow Manse one living under the fama of expulsion from the house of a brother minister in good standing."
"Thank you, father," said his son, "for your kind offer, but I do not think I shall need to trouble you."
And so with these words the young man turned and went out proudly from the father's sight, as he had gone from the manse of the other minister of the Marrow kirk.
As he came to the outside of the door, leaving his father sitting stately and stern in the Reformer's pulpit, he said, in the deeps of his heart:
"God do so to me, and more also, if I ever seek again to enter the Marrow kirk, if so be that, like my father, I must forget my humanity in order worthily to serve it!"
After he had gone out, the Reverend Gilbert Peden took his Bible and read the parable of the prodigal son. He closed the great book, which ever lay open before him, and said, as one who both accuses and excuses himself:
"But the prodigal son was not under trials for license in the kirk of the Marrow!"
At the door, John Bairdieson, his hair more than ever on end, met Ralph. He held up his hands.
"It's an awfu'—like thing to be obleegit to tell the hale truth! O man, couldna ye hae tell't a wee bit lee? It wad hae saved an awfu' deal o' fash! But it's ower late now; ye can juist bide i' the spare room up the stair, an' come an' gang by door on the Castle Bank, an' no yin forbye mysel' 'ill be a hair the wiser. I, John Bairdieson, 'll juist fetch up yer meals the same as ordinar'. Ye'll be like a laddie at the mastheid up there; it'll be braw an' quate for the studyin'!"
"John, I am much obliged to you for your kind thought," said Ralph, "but I cannot remain in his house against my father's expressed wish, and without his knowledge."
"Hear till him! Whaur else should he bide but in the hoose that he was born in, an' his faither afore him? That would be a bonny like story. Na, na, ye'll juist bide, Maister Ralph, an'—"
"I must go this very night," said Ralph. "You mean well, John, but it cannot be. I am going down to see my uncle, Professor Thriepneuk."
"Leave yer faither's hoose to gang to that o' a weezened auld—"
"John!" said Ralph, warningly.
"He's nae uncle o' yours, onygate, though he married your mother's sister. An' a sair life o't she had wi' him, though I doot na but thae dochters o' his sort him to richts noo."
So, in spite of John Bairdieson's utmost endeavours, and waiting only to put his clothes together, Ralph took his way over to the Sciennes, where his uncle, the professor, lived in a new house with his three daughters, Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch. The professor had always been very kind to Ralph. He was not a Marrow man, and therefore, according to the faith of his father, an outcast from the commonwealth. But he was a man of the world of affairs, keen for the welfare of his class at the University College—a man crabbed and gnarled on the surface, but within him a strong vein of tenderness of the sort that always seems ashamed of catching its possessor in a kind action.
To him Ralph knew that he could tell the whole story. The Sciennes was on the very edge of the green fields. The corn-fields stretched away from the dyke of the Professor's garden to the south towards the red-roofed village of Echo Bank and the long ridge of Liberton, crowned by the square tower on which a stone dining-room table had been turned up, its four futile legs waving in the air like a beetle overset on its back.
JEMIMA, KEZIA, AND LITTLE KEREN-HAPPUCH.
Ralph found the professor out. He was, indeed, engaged in an acrimonious discussion on the Wernerian theory, and at that moment he was developing a remarkable scientific passion, which threatened to sweep his adversaries from the face of the earth in the debris of their heresies.
Within doors, however, Ralph found a very warm welcome from his three cousins—Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch. Jemima was tall and angular, with her hair accurately parted in the middle, and drawn in a great sweep over her ears—a fashion intended by Nature for Keren-happuch, who was round of face, and with a complexion in which there appeared that mealy pink upon the cheeks which is peculiar to the metropolis. Kezia was counted the beauty of the family, and was much looked up to by her elder and younger sisters.
These three girls had always made much of Ralph, ever since he used to play about the many garrets and rooms of their old mansion beneath the castle, before they moved out to the new house at the Sciennes. They had long been in love with him, each in her own way; though they had always left the first place to Kezia, and wove romances in their own heads with Ralph for the central figure. Jemima, especially, had been very jealous of her sisters, who were considerably younger, and had often spoken seriously to them about flirting with Ralph. It was Jemima who came to the door; for, in those days, all except the very grandest persons thought no more of opening the outer than the inner doors of their houses.
"Ralph Peden, have you actually remembered that there is such a house as the Sciennes?" said Jemima, holding up her face to receive the cousinly kiss.
Ralph bestowed it chastely. Whereupon followed Kezia and little Keren-happuch, who received slightly varied duplicates.
Then the three looked at one another. They knew that this Ralph had eaten of the tree of knowledge.
"That is not the way you kissed us before you went away," said outspoken Kezia, who had experience in the matter wider than that of the others, looking him straight in the eyes as became a beauty.
For once Ralph was thoroughly taken aback, and blushed richly and long.
Kezia laughed as one who enjoyed his discomfiture.
"I knew it would come," she said. "Is she a milkmaid? She's not the minister's daughter, for he is a bachelor, you said!"
Jemima and Keren-happuch actually looked a little relieved, though a good deal excited. They had been standing in the hall while this conversation was running its course.
"It's all nonsense, Kezia; I am astonished at you!" said Jemima.
"Come into the sitting-parlour," said Kezia, taking Ralph's hand; "we'll not one of us bear any malice if only you tell us all about it."
Jemima, after severe consideration, at last looked in a curious sidelong way to Ralph.
"I hope," she said, "that you have not done anything hasty."
"Tuts!" said Kezia, "I hope he has. He was far too slow before he went away. Make love in haste; marry at leisure—that's the right way."
"Can I have the essay that you read us last April, on the origin of woman?" asked Keren-happuch unexpectedly. "You won't want it any more, and I should like it."
Even little Keren-happuch had her feelings.
The three Misses Thriepneuks were a little jealous of one another before, but already they had forgotten this slight feeling, which indeed was no more than the instinct of proprietorship which young women come to feel in one who has never been long out of their house, and with whom they have been brought up.
But in the face of this new interest they lost their jealousy of one another; so that, in place of presenting a united front to the enemy, these three kindly young women, excited at the mere hint of a love-story, vied with one another which should be foremost in interest and sympathy. The blush on Ralph's face spoke its own message, and now, when he was going to speak, his three cousins sat round with eager faces to listen.
"I have something to tell, girls," said Ralph, "but I meant to tell it first to my uncle. I have been turned out of the manse of Dullarg, and my father will not allow me to live in his house till after the meeting of the presbytery."
This was more serious than a love-story, and the bright expression died down into flickering uncertainty in the faces of Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch.
"It's not anything wrong?" asked Jemima, anxiously.
"No, no," said Ralph quickly, "nothing but what I have reason to be proud enough of. It is only a question of the doctrines and practice of the Marrow kirk—"
"Oh!" said all three simultaneously, with an accent of mixed scorn and relief. The whole matter was clear to them now.
"And of the right of the synod of the Marrow kirk to control my actions," continued Ralph.
But the further interest was entirely gone from the question.
"Tell us about HER," they said in unison.
"How do you know it is a 'her'?" asked Ralph, clumsily trying to put off time, like a man.
Kezia laughed on her own account, Keren-happuch, because Kezia laughed, but Jemima said solemnly:
"I hope she is of a serious disposition."
"Nonsense! I hope she is pretty," said Kezia.
"And I hope she will love me," said little Keren-happuch.
Ralph thought a little, and then, as it was growing dark, he sat on the old sofa with his back to the fading day, and told his love-story to these three sweet girls, who, though they had played with him and been all womanhood to him ever since he came out of petticoats, had not a grain of jealousy of the unseen sister who had come suddenly past them and stepped into the primacy of Ralph's life.
When he was half-way through with his tale he suddenly stopped, and said:
"But I ought to have told all this first to your father, because he may not care to have me in his house. There is only my word for it, after all, and it is the fact that I have not the right to set foot in my own father's house."
"We will make our father see it in the right way," said Jemima quietly.
"Yes," interposed Kezia, "or I would not give sixpence for his peace of mind these next six months."
"It is all right if you tell us," said little Keren-happuch, who was her father's playmate. Jemima ruled him, Kezia teased him—the privilege of beauty—but it was generally little Keren-happuch who fetched his slippers and sat with her cheek against the back of his hand as he smoked and read in his great wicker chair by the north window.
There was the sound of quick nervous footsteps with an odd halt in their fall on the gravel walk outside. The three girls ran to the door in a tumultuous greeting, even Jemima losing her staidness for the occasion. Ralph could hear only the confused babble of tongues and the expressions, "Now you hear, father—" "Now you understand—" "Listen to me, father—" as one after another took up the tale.
Ralph retold the story that night from the very beginning to the professor, who listened silently, punctuating his thoughts with the puffs of his pipe.
When he had finished, there was an unwonted moisture in the eyes of Professor Thriepneuk—perhaps the memory of a time when he too had gone a-courting.
He stretched the hand which was not occupied with his long pipe to Ralph, who grasped it strongly.
"You have acted altogether as I could have desired my own son to act; I only wish that I had one like you. Let the Marrow Kirk alone, and come and be my assistant till you see your way a little into the writer's trade. Pens and ink are cheap, and you can take my classes in the summer, and give me quietness to write my book on 'The Abuses of Ut with the Subjunctive.'"
"But I must find lodgings—" interrupted Ralph.
"You must find nothing—just bide here. It is the house of your nearest kin, and the fittest place for you. Your meat's neither here nor there, and my lasses—"
"They are the best and kindest in the world," said Ralph.
The professor glanced at him with a sharp, quizzical look under his eyebrows. He seemed as if he were about to say something, and then thought better of it and did not. Perhaps he also had had his illusions.
As Ralph was going to his room that night Kezia met him at the head of the stairs. She came like a flash from nowhere in particular.
"Good-night, Ralph," she said; "give your Winsome a kiss from me— the new kind—like this!"
Then Kezia vanished, and Ralph was left wondering, with his candle in his hand.
A TRIANGULAR CONVERSATION.
It was the day of the fast before the Communion in the Dullarg. The services of the day were over, and Allan Welsh, the minister of the Marrow kirk, was resting in his study from his labours. Manse Bell came up and knocked, inclining her ear as she did so to catch the minister's low-toned reply.
"Mistress Winifred Charteris frae the Craig Ronald to see ye, sir."
Allan Welsh commanded his emotion without difficulty—what of it he felt—as indeed he had done for many years.
He rose, however, with his hand on the table as though for support, as Winsome came in. He received her in silence, bending over her hand with a certain grave reverence.
Winsome sat down. She was a little paler but even lovelier in the minister's eyes than when he had seen her before. The faint violet shadows under her lower lids were deeper, and gave a new depth to her sapphire eyes whose irises were so large that the changeful purple lights in them came and went like summer lightnings.
It was Winsome who first spoke, looking at him with a strange pity and a stirring of her soul that she could not account for. She had come unwillingly on her errand, disliking him as the cause of her lover's absence—one of the last things a woman learns to forgive. But, as she looked on Allan Welsh, so bowed and broken, his eyes fallen in, looking wistfully out of the pain of his life, her heart went out to him, even as she thought that of a truth he was Ralph Peden's enemy.
"My grandfather," she said, and her voice was low, equable, and serious, "sent me with a packet to you that he instructed me only to give into your own hands."
Winsome went over to the minister and gave him a sealed parcel. Allan Welsh took it in his hand and seemed to weigh it.
"I thank you," he said, commanding his voice with some difficulty. "And I ask you to thank Walter Skirving for his remembrance of me. It is many years since we were driven apart, but I have not forgotten the kindness of the long ago!"
He opened the parcel. It was sealed with Walter Skirving's great seal ring which he wore on his watch-chain, lying on the table before him as he kept his never-ending vigil. There was a miniature and a parcel of letters within.
It was the face of a fair girl, with the same dark-blue eyes of the girl now before him, and the same golden hair—the face of an earlier but not a fairer Winifred. Allan Welsh set his teeth, and caught at the table to stay his dizzying head. The letters were his own. It was Walter Skirving's stern message to him. From the very tomb his own better self rose in judgment against him. He saw what he might have been—the sorrow he had wrought, and the path of ultimate atonement.
He had tried to part two young lovers who had chosen the straight and honest way. It was true that his duty to the kirk which had been his life, and which he himself was under condemnation according to his own standard, had seemed to him to conflict with the path he had marked out for Ralph.
But his own letters, breaking from their brittle confining band, poured in a cataract of folded paper and close-knit writing which looked like his own self of long ago, upon the table before him. He was condemned out of his own mouth.
Winsome sat with her face turned to the window, from which she could see the heathery back of a hill which heaved its bulk between the manse and the lowlands at the mouth of the Dee. There was a dreamy look in her eyes, land her heart was far away in that Edinburgh town from which she had that day received a message to shake her soul with love and pity.
The minister of the Dullarg looked up.
"Do you love him?" he asked, abruptly and harshly.
Winsome looked indignant and surprised. Her love, laid away in the depths of her heart, was sacred, and not thus to be at the mercy of every rude questioner. But as her eye rested on Allan Welsh, the unmistakable accent of sincerity took hold on her—that accent which may ask all things and not be blamed.
"I do love him," she said—"with all my heart."
That answer does not vary while God is in his heaven.
The eye of Allan Welsh fell on the miniature. The woman he had loved so long ago took part in the conversation.
"That is what you said twenty years ago!" the unseen Winsome said from the table.
"And he loves you?" he asked, without looking up.
"If I did not believe it, I could not live!"
Allan Welsh glanced with a keen and sudden scrutiny at Winsome Charteris; but the clearness of her eye and the gladness and faith at the bottom of it satisfied him as to his thought.
This Ralph Peden was a better man than he. A sad yearning face looked up at him from the table, and a voice thrilled in his ears across the years—
"So did not you!"
"You know," said Allan Welsh, again untrue to himself, "that it is not for Ralph Peden's good that he should love you." The formal part of him was dictating the words.
"I know you think so, and I am here to ask you why," said Winsome fearlessly.
"And if I persuade you, will you forbid him?" said Allan Welsh, convinced of his own futility.
Winsome's heart caught the accent of insincerity. It had gone far beyond forbidding love or allowing it with Ralph Peden and herself.
"I shall try!" she said, with her own sweet serenity. But across the years a voice was pleading their case. As the black and faded ink of the letters flashed his own sentences across the minister's eye, the soul God had put within him rose in revolt against his own petty and useless preaching.
"So did not you" persisted the voice in his ear. "Me you counselled to risk all, and you took me out into the darkness, lighting my way with love. Did ever I complain—father lost, mother lost, home lost, God well nigh lost—all for you; yet did I even regret when you saw me die?"
"Think of the Marrow kirk," said the minister. "Her hard service does not permit a probationer, before whom lies the task of doctrine and reproof, to have father or mother, wife or sweetheart."
"And what did you," said the voice, "in that past day, care for the Marrow kirk, when the light shone upon me, and you thought the world, and the Marrow kirk with it, well lost for love's sake and mine?"
Allan Welsh bowed his head yet lower.
Winsome Charteris went over to him. His tears were falling fast on the dulled and yellowing paper.
Winsome put her hands on his shoulder.
"Is that my mother's picture?" she said, hardly knowing what she said.
Allan Welsh put his hand greedily about it, he could not let it go.
"Will you kiss me for your mother's sake?" he said.
And then, for the first time since her babyhood, Winsome Charteris, whose name was Welsh, kissed her father.
There were tears on her mother's miniature, but through them the face of the dead Winifred seemed to smile well pleased.
"For my mother's sake!" said Winsome again, and kissed him of her own accord on the brow.
Thus Walter Skirving's message was delivered.
THE MEETING OF THE SYNOD.
With the vestry of the Marrow kirk in Bell's Wynd the synod met, and was constituted with prayer. Sederunt, the Reverend Gilbert Peden, moderator, minister of the true kirk of God in Scotland, commonly called the Marrow Kirk, in which place the synod for the time being was assembled; the Reverend Allan Welsh, minister of the Marrow kirk in Dullarg, clerk of the synod; John Bairdieson, synod's officer. The minutes of the last meeting having been read and approved of, the court proceeded to take up business. Inter alia the trials of Master Ralph Peden, some time student of arts and humanity in the College of Edinburgh, were a remit for this day and date. Accordingly, the synod called upon the Reverend Allan Welsh, its clerk, to make report upon the diligence, humility, and obedience, as well as upon the walk and conversation of the said Ralph Peden, student in divinity, now on trials for license to preach, the gospel.