Allan Welsh read all this gravely and calmly, as if the art of expressing ecclesiastical meaning lay in clothing it in as many overcoats as a city watchman wears in winter.
The moderator sat still, with a grim earnestness in his face. He was the very embodiment of the kirk of the Marrow, and though there were but two ministers with no elders there that day to share the responsibility, what did that matter?
He, Gilbert Peden, successor of all the (faithful) Reformers, was there to do inflexible and impartial justice.
John Bairdieson came in and sat down. The moderator observed his presence, and in his official capacity took notice of it.
"This sederunt of the synod is private," he said. "Officer, remove the strangers."
In his official capacity the officer of the court promptly removed John Bairdieson, who went most unwillingly.
The matter of the examination of probationers comes up immediately after the reading of the minutes in well-regulated church courts, being most important and vital.
"The clerk will now call for the report upon the life and conduct of the student under trials," said the moderator.
The clerk called upon the Reverend Allan Welsh to present his report. Then he sat down gravely, but immediately rose again to give his report. All the while the moderator sat impassive as a statue.
The minister of Dullarg began in a low and constrained voice. He had observed, he said, with great pleasure the diligence and ability of Master Ralph Peden, and considered the same in terms of the remit to him from the synod. He was much pleased with the clearness of the candidate upon the great questions of theology and church government. He had examined him daily in his work, and had confidence in bearing testimony to the able and spiritual tone of all his exercises, both oral and written.
Soon after he began, a surprised look stole over the face of the moderator. As Allan Welsh went on from sentence to sentence, the thin nostrils of the representative of the Reformers dilated. A strange and intense scorn took possession of him. He sat back and looked fixedly at the slight figure of the minister of Dullarg bending under the weight of his message and the frailty of his body. His time was coming.
Allan Welsh sat down, and laid his written report on the table of the synod.
"And is that all that you have to say?" queried the moderator, rising.
"That is all," said Allan Welsh.
"Then," said the moderator, "I charge it against you that you have either said too much or too little: too much for me to listen to as the father of this young man, if it be true that you extruded him, being my son and a student of the Marrow kirk committed to your care, at midnight from your house, for no stated cause; and too little, far too little to satisfy me as moderator of this synod, when a report not only upon diligence and scholarship, but also upon a walk and conversation becoming the gospel, is demanded."
"I have duly given my report according to the terms of the remit," said Allan Welsh, simply and quietly.
"Then," said the moderator, "I solemnly call you to account as the moderator of this synod of the only true and protesting Kirk of Scotland, for the gravest dereliction of your duty. I summon you to declare the cause why Ralph Peden, student in divinity, left your house at midnight, and, returning to mine, was for that cause denied bed and board at his father's house."
"I deny your right, moderator, to ask that question as an officer of this synod. If, at the close, you meet me as man to man, and, as a father, ask me the reasons of my conduct, some particulars of which I do not now seek to defend, I shall be prepared to satisfy you."
"We are not here convened," said the moderator, "to bandy compliments, but to do justice—"
"And to love mercy," interjected John Bairdieson through the keyhole.
"Officer," said the moderator, "remove that rude interrupter."
"Aye, aye, sir," responded the synod officer promptly, and removed the offender as much as six inches.
"You have no more to say?" queried the moderator, bending his brows in threatening fashion.
"I have no more to say," returned the clerk as firmly. They were both combative men; and the old spirit of that momentous conflict, in which they had fought so gallantly together, moved them to as great obstinacy now that they were divided.
"Then," said the moderator, "there's nothing for't but another split, and the Lord do so, and more also, to him whose sin brings it about!"
"Amen!" said Allan Welsh.
"You will remember," said the moderator, addressing the minister of Dullarg directly, "that you hold your office under my pleasure. There is that against you in the past which would justify me, as moderator of the kirk of the Marrow, in deposing you summarily from the office of the ministry. This I have in writing under your own hand and confession."
"And I," said the clerk, rising with the gleaming light of war in his eye, "have to set it against these things that you are guilty of art and part in the concealment of that which, had you spoken twenty years ago, would have removed from the kirk of the Marrow an unfaithful minister, and given some one worthier than I to report on the fitness of your son for the ministry. It was you, Gilbert Peden, who made this remit to me, knowing what you know. I shall accept the deposition which you threaten at your hands, but remember that co-ordinately the power of this assembly lies with me—you as moderator, having only a casting, not a deliberative vote; and know you, Gilbert Peden, minister and moderator, that I, Allan Welsh, will depose you also from the office of the ministry, and my deposition will stand as good as yours."
"The Lord preserve us! In five meenetes there'll be nae Marrow Kirk" said John Bairdieson, and flung himself against the door; but the moderator had taken the precaution of locking it and placing the key on his desk.
The two ministers rose simultaneously. Gilbert Peden stood at the head and Allan Welsh at the foot of the little table. They were so near that they could have shaken hands across it. But they had other work to do.
"Allan Welsh," said the moderator, stretching out his hand, "minister of the gospel in the parish of Dullarg to the faithful contending remnant, I call upon you to show cause why you should not be deposed for the sins of contumacy and contempt, for sins of person and life, confessed and communicate under your hand."
"Gilbert Peden," returned the minister of the Dullarg and clerk to the Marrow Synod, looking like a cock-boat athwart the hawse of a leviathan of the deep, "I call upon you to show cause why you should not be deposed for unfaithfulness in the discharge of your duty, in so far as you have concealed known sin, and by complicity and compliance have been sharer in the wrong."
There was a moment's silence. Gilbert Peden knew well that what his opponent said was good Marrow doctrine, for Allan Welsh had confessed to him his willingness to accept deposition twenty years ago.
Then, as with one voice, the two men pronounced against each other the solemn sentence of deposition and deprivation:
"In the name of God, and by virtue of the law of the Marrow Kirk, I solemnly depose you from the office of the ministry."
John Bairdieson burst in the door, leaving the lock hanging awry with the despairing force of his charge.
"Be merciful, oh, be merciful!" he cried; "let not the Philistines rejoice, nor the daughter of the uncircumcised triumph. Let be! let be! Say that ye dinna mean it! Oh, say ye dinna mean it! Tak' it back—tak' it a' back!"
There was the silence of death between the two men, who stood lowering at each other.
John Bairdieson turned and ran down the stairs. He met Ralph and Professor Thriepneuk coming up.
"Gang awa'! gang awa'!" he cried. "There's nae leecense for ye noo. There's nae mair ony Marrow Kirk! There's nae mair heaven and earth! The Kirk o' the Marrow, precious and witnessing, is nae mair!"
And the tears burst from the old sailor as he ran down the street, not knowing whither he went.
Half-way down the street a seller of sea-coal, great and grimy, barred his way. He challenged the runner to fight. The spirit of the Lord came upon John Bairdieson, and, rejoicing that a foe withstood him, he dealt a buffet so sore and mighty that the seller of coal, whose voice could rise like the grunting of a sea beast to the highest windows of the New Exchange Buildings, dropped as an ox drops when it is felled. And John Bairdieson ran on, crying out: "There's nae kirk o' God in puir Scotland ony mair!"
PURGING AND RESTORATION.
It was the Lord's day in Edinburgh town. The silence in the early morning was something which could be felt—not a footstep, not a rolling wheel. Window-blinds were mostly down—on the windows provided with them. Even in Bell's Wynd there was not the noise of the week. Only a tinker family squabbled over the remains of the deep drinking of the night before. But then, what could Bell's Wynd expect—to harbour such?
It was yet early dawn when John Bairdieson, kirk officer to the little company of the faithful to assemble there later in the day, went up the steps and opened the great door with his key. He went all round the church with his hat on. It was a Popish idea to take off the head covering within stone walls, yet John Bairdieson was that morning possessed with the fullest reverence for the house of God and the highest sense of his responsibility as the keeper of it.
He was wont to sing:
"Rather in My God's house would I keep a door Than dwell in tents of sin."
That was the retort which he flung across at Taminas Laidlay, the beadle of the Established Kirk opposite, with all that scorn in the application which was due from one in John Bairdieson's position to one in that of Tammas Laidlay.
But this morning John had no spirit for the encounter. He hurried in and sat down by himself in the minister's vestry. Here he sat for a long season in deep and solemn thought.
"I'll do it!" he said at last.
It was near the time when the minister usually came to enter into his vestry, there to prepare himself by meditation and prayer for the services of the sanctuary. John Bairdieson posted himself on the top step of the stairs which led from the street, to wait for him. At last, after a good many passers-by, all single and all in black, walking very fast, had hurried by, John's neck craning after every one, the minister appeared, walking solemnly down the street with his head in the air. His neckcloth was crumpled and soiled—a fact which was not lost on John.
The minister came up the steps and made as though he would pass John by without speaking to him; but that guardian of the sanctuary held out his arms as though he were wearing sheep.
"Na, na, minister, ye come na into this Kirk this day as minister till ye be lawfully restored. There are nae ministers o' the kirk o' the Marrow the noo; we're a body without a heid. I thocht that the Kirk was at an end, but the Lord has revealed to me that the Marrow Kirk canna end while the world lasts. In the nicht season he telled me what to do."
The minister stood transfixed. If his faithful serving-man of so many years had turned against him, surely the world was at an end. But it was not so.
John Bairdieson went on, standing with his hat in his hand, and the hairs of his head erect with the excitement of unflinching justice.
"I see it clear. Ye are no minister o' this kirk. Mr. Welsh is no minister o' the Dullarg. I, John Bairdieson, am the only officer of the seenod left; therefore I stand atween the people and you this day, till ye hae gane intil the seenod hall, that we ca' on ordinary days the vestry, and there, takkin' till ye the elders that remain, ye be solemnly ordainit ower again and set apairt for the office o' the meenistry."
"But I am your minister, and need nothing of the sort!" said Gilbert Peden. "I command you to let me pass!"
"Command me nae commands! John Bairdieson kens better nor that. Ye are naither minister nor ruler; ye are but an elder, like mysel'— equal among your equals; an' ye maun sit amang us this day and help to vote for a teachin' elder, first among his equals, to be set solemnly apairt."
The minister, logical to the verge of hardness, could not gainsay the admirable and even-handed justice of John Bairdieson's position. More than that, he knew that every man in the congregation of the Marrow Kirk of Bell's Wynd would inevitably take the same view.
Without another word he went into the session-house, where in due time he sat down and opened the Bible.
He had not to wait long, when there joined him Gavin MacFadzean, the cobbler, from the foot of Leith Walk, and Alexander Taylour, carriage-builder, elders in the kirk of the Marrow; these, forewarned by John Bairdieson, took their places in silence. To them entered Allan Welsh. Then, last of all, John Bairdieson came in and took his own place. The five elders of the Marrow kirk were met for the first time on an equal platform. John Bairdieson opened with prayer. Then he stated the case. The two ex-ministers sat calm and silent, as though listening to a chapter in the Acts of the Apostles. It was a strange scene of equality, only possible and actual in Scotland.
"But mind ye," said John Bairdieson, "this was dune hastily, and not of set purpose—for ministers are but men—even ministers of the Marrow kirk. Therefore shall we, as elders of the kirk, in full standing, set apairt two of our number as teaching elders, for the fulfilling of ordinances and the edification of them that believe. Have you anything to say? If not, then let us proceed to set apairt and ordain Gilbert Peden and Allan Welsh."
But before any progress could be made, Allan Welsh rose. John Bairdieson had been afraid of this.
"The less that's said, the better," he said hastily, "an' it's gottin' near kirk-time. We maun get it a' by or then."
"This only I have to say," said Allan Welsh, "I recognize the justice of my deposition. I have been a sinful and erring man, and I am not worthy to teach in the pulpit any more. Also, my life is done. I shall soon lay it down and depart to the Father whose word I, hopeless and castaway, have yet tried faithfully to preach."
Then uprose Gilbert Peden. His voice was husky with emotion. "Hasty and ill-advised, and of such a character as to bring dishonour on the only true Kirk in Scotland, has such an action been. I confess myself a hasty man, a man of wrath, and that wrath unto sin. I have sinned the sin of anger and presumption against a brother. Long ere now I would have taken it back, but it is the law of God that deeds once done cannot be undone; though we seek repentance carefully with tears, we cannot put the past away."
Thus, with the consecration and the humility of confession Gilbert Peden purged himself from the sin of hasty anger.
"Like Uzzah at the threshing-floor of Nachon," he went on, "I have sinned the sin of the Israelite who set his hand to the ox-cart to stay the ark of God. It is of the Lord's mercy that I am not consumed, like the men of Beth-shemesh."
So Gilbert Peden was restored, but Allan Welsh would not accept any restoration.
"I am not a man accepted of God," he said. And even Gilbert Peden said no word.
"Noo," said John Bairdieson, "afore this meetin' scales [is dismissed], there is juist yae word that I hae to say. There's nane o' us haes wives, but an' except Alexander Taylour, carriage- maker. Noo, the proceedings this mornin' are never to be jince named in the congregation. If, then, there be ony soond of this in the time to come, mind you Alexander Taylour, that it's you that'll hae to bear the weight o't!"
This was felt to be fair, even by Alexander Taylour, carriage- maker.
The meeting now broke up, and John Bairdieson went to reprove Margate Truepenny for knocking with her crutch on the door of the house of God on the Sabbath morning.
"D'ye think," he said, "that the fowk knockit wi' their staves on the door o' the temple in Jerusalem?"
"Aiblins," retorted Margate, "they had feller [quicker] doorkeepers in thae days nor you, John Bairdieson."
The morning service was past. Gilbert Peden had preached from the text, 'Greater is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city."
"Oor minister is yin that looks deep intil the workings o' his ain heart," said Margate, as she hirpled homeward.
But when the church was empty and all gone home, in the little vestry two men sat together, and the door was shut. Between them they held a miniature, the picture of a girl with a flush of rose on her cheek and a laughing light in her eyes. There was silence, but for a quick catch in the stronger man's breathing, which sounded like a sob. Gilbert Peden, who had only lost and never won, and Allan Welsh, who had both won and lost, were forever at one. There was silence between them, as they looked with eyes of deathless love at the picture which spoke to them of long ago.
Walter Skirving's message, which Winsome had brought to the manse of Dullarg, had united the hearts estranged for twenty years. Winsome had builded better than she knew.
THREADS DRAWN TOGETHER.
Winsome took her grandmother out one afternoon into the rich mellow August light, when the lower corn-fields were glimmering with misty green shot underneath with faintest blonde, and the sandy knowes were fast yellowing. The blithe old lady was getting back some of her strength, and it seemed possible that once again she might be able to go round the house without even the assistance of an arm.
"And what is this I hear," said Mistress Skirving, "that the daft young laird frae the Castle has rin' aff wi' that cottar's lassie, Jess Kissock, an' marriet her at Gretna Green. It's juist no possible."
"But, grandma, it is quite true, for Jock Gordon brought the news. He saw them postin' back from Gretna wi' four horses!"
"An' what says his mither, the Lady Elizabeth?"
"They say that she's delighted," said Winsome.
"That's a lee, at ony rate!" said the mistress of Craig Ronald, without a moment's hesitation. She knew the Lady Elizabeth,
"They say," said Winsome, "that Jess can make them do all that she wants at the Castle."
"Gin she gars them pit doon new carpets, she'll do wonders," said her grandmother, acidly. She came of a good family, and did not like mesalliances, though she had been said to have made one herself.
But there was no misdoubting the fact that Jess had done her sick nursing well, and had possessed herself in honourable and lawful wedlock of the Honourable Agnew Greatorix—and that too, apparently with the consent of the Lady Elizabeth.
"What took them to Gretna, then?" said Winsome's grandmother.
"Well, grandmammy, you see, the Castle folk are Catholic, and would not have a minister; an' Jess, though a queer Christian, as well as maybe to show her power and be romantic, would have no priest or minister either, but must go to Gretna. So they're back again, and Jock Gordon says that she'll comb his hair. He has to be in by seven o'clock now," said Winsome, smiling.
"Wha's ben wi' yer grandfaither?" after a pause, Mistress Skirving asked irrelevantly.
"Only Mr. Welsh from the manse," said Winsome. "I suppose he came to see grandfather about the packet I took to the manse a month ago. Grandmother, why does Mr. Welsh come so seldom to Craig Ronald?" she asked.
But her grandmother was shaking in a strange way.
"I have not heard any noise," she said. "You had better go in and see."
Winsome stole to the door and looked within. She saw the minister with his head on the swathed knees of her grandfather. The old man had laid his hand upon the grey hair of the kneeling minister. Awed and solemnised, Winsome drew back.
She told her grandmother what she had seen, and the old lady said nothing for the space of a quarter of an hour. At the end of that time she said:
"Help me ben."
And Winsome, taking her arm, guided her into the hushed room where her husband sat, still holding his hand on the head of Allan Welsh.
Something in the pose of the kneeling man struck her—a certain helpless inclination forward.
Winsome ran, and, taking Allan Welsh by the shoulders, lifted him up in her strong young arms.
He was dead. He had passed in the act of forgiveness.
Walter Skirving, who had sat rapt and silent through it all as though hardly of this world, now said clearly and sharply:
"'For if ye forgive men their trespasses, so also shall your heavenly Father forgive you.'"
Walter Skirving did not long survive the man, in hatred of whom he had lived, and in unity with whom he had died. It seemed as though he had only been held to the earth by the necessity that the sun of his life should not go down upon his wrath. This done, like a boat whose moorings are loosed, very gladly he went out that same night upon the ebb tide. The two funerals were held upon the same day. Minister and elder were buried side by side one glorious August day, which was a marvel to many. So the Dullarg kirk was vacant, and there was only Manse Bell to take care of the property. Jonas Shillinglaw came from Cairn Edward and communicated the contents of both Walter Skirving's will and of that of Allan Welsh to those whom it concerned. Jonas had made several journeys of late both to the manse as well as to the steading of Craig Ronald. Walter Skirving left Craig Ronald and all of which he died possessed to Winsome Charteris, subject to the approval of her grandmother as to whom she might marry. There was a recent codicil. "I desire to record my great satisfaction that Winifred Charteris or Welsh is likely to marry the son of my old friend Gilbert Peden, minister of the Marrow kirk in Edinburgh; and hearing that the young man contemplates the career of letters, I desire that, if it be possible, in the event of their marriage, they come to abide at Craig Ronald, at least till a better way be opened for them. I commend my wife, ever loving and true, to them both; and in the good hope of a glorious resurrection I commit myself to Him who made me."
Allan Welsh left all his goods and his property to Ralph Peden, "being as mine own son, because he taught me to know true love, and fearlessness and faith unfeigned. Also because one dear to him brought me my hope of forgiveness."
There was indeed need of Ralph at Craig Ronald. Mistress Skirving cried out incessantly for him. Meg begged Winsome to let her look every day at the little miniature Ralph had sent her from Edinburgh. The Cuif held forth upon the great event every night when he came over to hold the tails of Meg's cows. Jock Forrest still went out, saying nothing, whenever the Cuif came in, which the Cuif took to be a good sign. Only Ebie Fairrish, struck to the heart by the inconstancy of Jess, removed at the November term back again to the "laigh end" of the parish, and there plunged madly into flirtations with several of his old sweethearts. He is reported to have found in numbers the anodyne for the unfaithfulness of one. As for what Winsome thought and longed for, it is better that we should not begin to tell, not having another volume to spare.
Only she went to the hill-top by the side of Loch Ken and looked northward every eventide; and her heart yearned within her.
WINSOME'S LAST TRYST.
It was the morn before a wedding, and there had been a constant stir all night all about the farmsteading, for a brand-new world was in the making. Such a marrying had not been for years. The farmers' sons for miles around were coming on their heavy plough- horses, with here and there one of better breed. Long ago in the earliest morning some one had rung the bell of the little kirk of the Dullarg. It came upon the still air a fairy tinkle, and many a cottar and many a shepherd turned over with a comfortable feeling: "This is the Sabbath morn; I need not rise so soon to-day." But all their wives remembered, and turned them out with wifely elbow.
It was Winsome Charteris's wedding day. The flower of all the countryside was to wed the young Edinburgh lad who had turned out so great a poet. It was the opinion of the district that her "intended" had unsettled the thrones of all the great writers of the past by his volume of poems, which no one in the parish had read; but the fame of whose success had been wafted down upon the eastern breezes which bore the snell bite of the metropolis upon their front.
"Tra-la-la-la!" chanted the cocks of Craig Ronald.
"Tra-la-la-la-la!" airily sang the solitary bird which lived up among the pine woods, where, in the cot of Mistress Kissock, Ralph Peden occupied the little bedroom which Meg had got ready for him with such care and honour.
"Tra-la-la-laa!" was echoed in the airiest diminuendo from the far-away leader of the harem at the Nether Orae. His challenge crossed the wide gulf of air above Loch Grannoch, from which in the earliest morning the mists were rising.
Ralph Peden heard all three birds. He had a delightfully comfortable bedroom, and the flowers on the little white-covered table have come from the front square of Mistress Kissock's garden. There was a passion-flower on his table, which somehow reminded him of a girl who had put poppies in hair of the raven's wing hue. It had not grown in the garden of the cot.
Yet Ralph was out in the earliest dawn, listening to the sighing of the trees and taking in the odour of the perfume from the pines on the slope.
Ralph did not write any poem this morning, though the Muses were abroad in the stillness of the dawn. His eyes were on a little window once more overclambered by the June roses. His poem was down there, and it was coming to him.
How eagerly he looked, his eyes like telescopes! Then his heart thrilled. In the cool flood of slanting morning sunshine which had just overflowed the eastern gable of the house, some one swiftly crossed the court-yard of the farm. In a moment the sun, winking on a pair of tin pails, told him that Meg Kissock was going to the well. From the barn end some one stepped out by her side and walked to the well. Then, as they returned, it was not the woman who was carrying the winking pails. At the barn end they drew together in the shadow for a long minute, and then again Ralph saw Meg's back as she walked sedately to the kitchen door, the cans flashing rhythmically as she swung them. So high was he above them that he could even notice the mellow dimple of diffused light from the water in the bright pail centring and scattering the morning sunlight as it swayed.
Presently the one half of the blue kitchen door became black. It had been opened. Ralph's heart gave a great bound. Then the black became white and glorified, for framed within it appeared a slender shape like a shaft of light. Ralph's eyes did not leave the figure as it stepped out and came down by the garden edge.
Along the top of the closely-cut hawthorn a dot of light moved. It was but a speck, like the paler centre of the heather bells. Ralph ran swiftly down the great dyke in a manner more natural to a young man than dignified in a poet. In a minute he came to the edge of the glen in which Andra Kissock had guddled the trouts. That flash of layender must pass this way. It passed and stayed.
So in the cool translucence of morning light the lovers met in this quiet glade, the great heather moors above them once more royally purple, the burnie beneath singing a gentle song, the birds vying with each other in complicated trills of pretended artlessness.
It was purely by chance that Winsome Charteris passed this way. And a kind Providence, supplemented on Ralph's side by some activity and observation, brought him also to the glen of the elders that June morning. Yet there are those who say that there is nothing in coincidence.
When Winsome, moving thoughtfully onward, gently waving a slip of willow in her hand, came in sight of Ralph, she stood and waited. Ralph went towards her, and so on their marriage morn these two lovers met.
It was like that morning on which by the lochside they parted, yet it was not like it.
With that prescience which is a sixth sense to women, Winsome had slipped on the old sprigged gown which had done duty at the blanket-washing so long ago, and her hair, unbound in the sun, shone golden as it flowed from beneath the lilac sunbonnet. As for Ralph, it does not matter how he was dressed. In love, dress does not matter a brass button after the first corner is turned—at least not to the woman.
"Sweet," said Ralph, "you are awake?"
Winsome looked up with eyes so glorious and triumphant that a blind man could scarce have doubted the fact.
"And you love me?" he continued, reading her eyes. With her old ripple of laughter she lightened the strain of the occasion.
"You are a silly boy," she said; "but you'll learn. I have come out to gather flowers," she added, ingenuously. "I shall expect you to help. No—no—and nothing else."
Had Ralph been in a fit condition to observe Nature this morning, it might have occurred to him that when girls come out to gather flowers for somewhat extensive decoration, they bring with them at least a basket and generally also their fourth best pair of scissors. Winsome had neither. But he was not in a mood for careful inductions.
The morning lights sprayed upon them as they went hither and thither gathering flowers—dew-drenched hyacinths, elastic wire- strung bluebells the colour of the sky when the dry east wind blows, the first great red bushes of the ling. Now it is a known fact that, in order properly to gather flowers, the collectors must divide and so quarter the ground.
"But this was not a scientific expedition," said Ralph, when the folly of their mode of proceeding was pointed out to him.
It was manifestly impossible that they could gather flowers walking with the palm of Ralph's left hand laid on the inside of Winsome's left arm. The thing cannot be done. At least so Ralph admitted afterwards.
"No," said Ralph, "but you made me promise to keep my shoulders back, and I am trying to to do it now."
And his manner of assisting Winsome to gather her flowers for her wedding bouquet was, when you come to think of it, admirably adapted for keeping the shoulders back.
"Meg waked me this morning," said Winsome suddenly.
"She did, did she?" remarked Ralph ineffectively, with a quick envy of Meg. Then it occurred to him that he had no need to envy Meg. And Winsome blushed for no reason at all.
Then she became suddenly practical, as the protective instinct teaches women to be on these occasions.
"You have not seen your study," she said.
"No," said Ralph, "but I have heard enough about it. It has occupied sixteen pages in the last three letters."
Ralph considered the study a good thing, but he had his views upon the composition of love-letters.
"You are an ungrateful boy," said Winsome sternly, "and I shall see that you get no more letters—not any more!"
"I shall never want any, little woman," cried Ralph joyously, "for I shall have you!"
It was a blessing that at this moment they were passing under the dense shade of the great oaks at the foot of the orchard. Winsome had thought for five minutes that it would happen about there. It happened.
A quarter of an hour later they came out into the cool ocean of leaf shadow which lay blue upon the grass and daisies. Winsome now carried the sunbonnet over her arm, and in the morning sunshine her uncovered head was so bright that Ralph could not gaze at it long. Besides, he wanted to look at the eyes that looked at him, and one cannot do everything at once.
"This is your study," she said, standing back to let him look in. It was a long, low room with an outside stair above the farthermost barn, and Winsome had fitted it up wondrously for Ralph. It opened off the orchard, and the late blossoms scattered into it when the winds blew from the south.
They stood together on the topmost step. There was a desk and one chair, and a low window-seat in each of the deep windows.
"You will never be disturbed here," said Winsome.
"But I want to be disturbed," said Ralph, who was young and did not know any better.
"Now go in," said Winsome, giving him a little push in the way that, without any offence, a proximate wife may. "Go in and study a little this morning, and see how you like it."
Ralph considered this as fair provocation, and turned, with bonds and imprisonment in his mind. But Winsome had vanished.
But from beneath came a clear voice out of the unseen:
"If you don't like it, you can come round and tell me. It will not be too late till the afternoon. Any time before three!"
A mere man is at a terrible disadvantage in word play of this kind. On this occasion Ralph could think of nothing better than—
"Winsome Charteris, I shall pay you back for this!"
Then he heard what might either have been a bell ringing for the fairies' breakfast, or a ripple of the merriest earthly laughter very far away.
Then he sat down to study.
It took him quite an hour to arrive at a conclusion; but when reached it was a momentous one. It was, that it is a mistake to be married in summer, for three o'clock in the afternoon is such a long time in coming.
THE LAST OF THE LILAC SUNBONNET.
Craig Ronald lies bright in a dreaming day in mid-September. The reapers are once more in the fields. Far away there is a crying of voices. The corn-fields by the bridge are white with a bloomy and mellow whiteness. Some part of the oats is already down. Close into the standing crop there is a series of rhythmic flashes, the scythes swinging like a long wave that curls over here and there. Behind the line of flashing steel the harvesters swarm like ants running hither and thither crosswise, apparently in aimless fashion.
Up through the orchard comes a girl, tall and graceful, but with a touch of something nobler and stiller that does not come to girlhood. It is the seal of the diviner Eden grace which only comes with the after Eden pain.
Winsome Peden carries more than ever of the old grace and beauty; and the eyes of her husband, who has been finishing the proofs of his next volume and at intervals looking over the busy fields to the levels of Loch Grannoch, tell her so as she comes.
But suddenly from opposite sides of the orchard this girl with the gracious something in her eyes is borne down by simultaneous assault. Shrieking with delight, a boy and a girl, dressed in complete defensive armour of daisies, and wielding desperate arms of lath manufactured by Andra Kissock, their slave, rush fiercely upon her. They pull down their quarry after a brisk chase, who sinks helplessly upon the grass under a merciless fire of caresses.
It is a critical moment. A brutal and licentious soldiery are not responsible at such moments. They may carry sack and rapine to unheard of extremities.
"You young barbarians, be careful of your only mother—unless you have a stock of them!" calls a voice from the top of the stairs which lead to the study.
"Father's come out—hurrah! Come on, Allan!" shouts Field-Marshal Winifred the younger who is leader and commander, to her army whose tottery and chubby youth does not suggest the desperation of a forlorn hope. So the study is carried at the point of the lath, and the banner of the victors—a cross of a sort unknown to heraldry, marked on a white ground with a blue pencil—is planted on the sacred desk itself.
Winsome the matron comes more slowly up the stairs.
"Can common, uninspired people come in?" she says, pausing at the top.
She looks about with a motherly eye, and pulls down the blind of the window into which the sun has been streaming all the morning. It is one of the advantages of such a wife that her husband, especially the rare literary variety, may be treated as no more than the eldest but most helpless of the babes. It is also true that Ralph had pulled up the blind in order that he might the better be able to see his wife moving among the reapers. For Winsome was more than ever a woman of affairs.
She stood in the doorway, looking in spite of the autumn sun and the walk up from the corn-field, deliriously cool. She fanned herself with a broad rhubarb-leaf—an impromptu fan plucked by the way. She sat down on the ledge of the upper step of Ralph's study, as she often did when she worked or rested. Ralph was again within, reclining on a window-seat, while the pack of reckless banditti swarmed over him.
"Have the rhymes been behaving themselves this morning?" Winsome said, looking across at Ralph as only a wife of some years' standing can look at her husband—with love deepened into understanding, and tempered with a spice of amusement and a wide and generous tolerance—the look of a loving woman to whom her husband and her husband's ways are better than a stage play. Such a look is a certificate of happy home and an ideal life, far more than all heroics. The love of the after-years depends chiefly on the capacity of a wife to be amused by her husband's peculiarities—and not to let him see it.
"There are three blanks," said Ralph, a little wistfully. "I have written a good deal, but I dare not read it over, lest it should be nothing worth."
This was a well-marked stage in Ralph's composition, and it was well that his wife had come.
"I fear you have been dreaming, instead of working," she said, looking at him with a kind of pitying admiration. Ralph, too, had grown handsomer, so his wife thought, since she had him to look after. How, indeed, could it be otherwise?
She rose and went towards him.
"Sun down, now, children, and play on the grass," she said. "Sun, chicks—off with you—shoo!" and she flirted her apron after them as she did when she scattered the chickens from the dairy door. The pinafored people fled shrieking across the grass, tumbling over each other in riotous heaps.
Then Winsome went over and kissed her husband. He was looking so handsome that he deserved it. And she did not do it too often. She was glad that she had made him wear a beard. She put one of her hands behind his head and the other beneath his chin, tilting his profile with the air of a connoisseur. This can only be done in one position.
"Well, does it suit your ladyship?" said Ralph.
She gave him a little box on the ear.
"I knew," he said, "that you wanted to come and sit on my knee!"
"I never did," replied Winsome with animation, making a statement almost certainly inaccurate upon the face of it.
"That's why you sent away the children," he went on, pinching her ear.
"Of all things in this world," said Winsome indignantly, "commend me to a man for conceit!"
"And to winsome wives for wily ways!" said her husband instantly. To do him justice, he did not often do this sort of thing.
"Keep the alliteration for the poems," retorted Winsome. "Truth will do for me."
After a little while she said, without apparent connection:
"It is very hot."
"What are they doing in the hay-field?" asked Ralph.
"Jock Forrest was leading and they were cutting down the croft very steadily. I think it looks like sixty bushels to the acre," she continued practically; "so you shall have a carpet for the study this year, if all goes well."
"That will be famous!" cried Ralph, like a schoolboy, waving his hand. It paused among Winsome's hair.
"I wish you would not tumble it all down," she said; "I am too old for that kind of thing now!"
The number of times good women perjure themselves is almost unbelievable.
But the recording angel has, it is said, a deaf side, otherwise he would need an ink-eraser. Ralph knew very well what she really meant, and continued to throw the fine-spun glossy waves over her head, as a miser may toss his gold for the pleasure of the cool, crisp touch.
"Then," continued Winsome, without moving (for, though so unhappy and uncomfortable, she sat still—some women are born with a genius for martyrdom), "then I had a long talk with Meg."
"And the babe?" queried Ralph, letting her hair run through his fingers.
"And the babe," said Winsome; "she had laid it to sleep under a stock, and when we went to see, it looked so sweet under the narrow arch of the corn! Then it looked up with big wondering eyes. I believe he thought the inside of the stook was as high as a temple."
"It is not I that am the poet!" said Ralph, transferring his attention for a moment from her hair.
"Meg says Jock Forrest is perfectly good to her, and that she would not change her man for all Greatorix Castle."
"Does Jock make a good grieve?" asked Ralph.
"The very best; he is a great comfort to me," replied his wife. "I get far more time to work at the children's things—and also to look after my Ursa Major!"
"What of Jess?" asked Ralph; "did Meg say?"
"Jess has taken the Lady Elizabeth to call on My Lord at Bowhill! What do you think of that? And she leads Agnew Greatorix about like a lamb, or rather like a sheep. He gets just one glass of sherry at dinner," said Winsome, who loved a spice of gossip—as who does not?
"There is a letter from my father this morning," said Ralph, half turning to pick it off his desk; "he is well, but he is in distress, he says, because he got his pocket picked of his handkerchief while standing gazing in at a shop window wherein books were displayed for sale, but John Bairdieson has sewed another in at the time of writing. They had a repeating tune the other day, and the two new licentiates are godly lads, and turning out a credit to the kirk of the Marrow."
"And that is more than ever you would have done, Ralph," said his wife candidly.
"Kezia is to be married in October, and there is a young man coming to see little Keren-happuch, but Jemima thinks that the minds of both of her younger sisters are too much set on the frivolous things of this earth. The professor has received a new kind of snuff from Holland which Kezia says is indistinguishable in its effects from pepper—one of his old students brought it to him—and that's all the news," said Ralph, closing up the letter and laying it on the table.
"Has Saunders Moudiewort cast his easy affections on any one this year yet?" Ralph asked, returning to the consideration of Winsome's hair.
Saunders was harvesting at present at Craig Ronald. The mistress of the farm laughed.
"I think not," she said; "Saunders says that his mother is the most' siccar' housekeeper that he kens of, and that after a while ye get to mind her tongue nae mair nor the mill fanners."
"That's just the way with me when you scold me," said Ralph.
"Very well, then, I must go to the summer seat and put you out of danger," replied Winsome. "Since you are so imposed upon, I shall see if the grannymother has done with her second volume. She never gets dangerous, except when she is kept waiting for the third."
But before they had time to move, the rollicking storm-cloud of younglings again came tumultuously up the stairs—Winifred far in front, Allan toddling doggedly in the rear.
"See what granny has put on my head!" cried Mistress Winifred the youngest, whose normal manner of entering a room suggested a revolution.
"Oo" said Allan, pointing with his chubby finger, "yook, yook! mother's sitting on favver's knee-rock-a-by, favver, rock-a-by!"
But Ralph had no eyes for anything but the old sunbonnet in which, the piquant flower face of Mistress Five-year-old Winifred was all but lost. He stooped and kissed it, and the face under it. It was frayed and faded, and it had lost both strings.
Then he looked up and kissed the wife who was still his sweetheart, for the love the lilac sunbonnet had brought to them so many years ago was still fresh with the dew of their youth.