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naebody saved up, everybody wud be weel aff. . . . Aweel, what maun be maun be.’ And, groaning, Private Thomson drew forth a packet which his friend had ‘stood’ him the previous day. ‘Regairdin’ this tea pairty,’ he resumed, ‘are ye supposed to eat a’ ye can an’ leave what ye canna–if there’s onything to leave?’

‘She’ll expect ye to eat a’ ye can.’

‘It’s easy seen she doesna ken me.’

‘Oh, she’ll be prepared for the warst, Wullie,’ said Macgregor, his good-humour returned. ‘I can shift a bit masel’ when I’m in form.’

Whereat Willie’s countenance was illuminated by a happy thought. ‘I’ll bet ye a tanner I’ll shift mair nor you!’

Macgregor laughed and shook his head. ‘If you an’ me was gaun oor lane to restewrant, I wud tak’ ye on; but—-‘

‘Aw, ye mean it wudna be the thing a tea pairty?’

‘Hardly.’

‘Weel, weel,’ said Willie, with sorry resignation, ‘honest money’s ill to earn. It wud ha’e been a snip for me. Ha’e ye a match? ‘Having lit up: ‘Tell us what else I maunna dae at the pairty.’

Macgregor scratched his head. ‘If it had been a denner pairty,’ he said slowly, thinking doubtless of Aunt Purdie’s, ‘I could ha’e gi’ed ye a queer list; but ye canna gang faur wrang at a tea pairty.’

‘I dinna want to gang an inch wrang.’

‘Weel, then, for instance, some folk objec’s to a chap sookin’ his tea frae his saucer—-‘

‘I’ll note that. Fire awa’!’

‘An’ if a cream cookie bursts—-‘

‘Dae they burst whiles?’

‘Up yer sleeve, as a rule,’ said Macgregor very solemnly.

‘Guid Goad! I’ll pass the cream cookies.’

‘But they’re awfu’ tasty.’

‘Are they? . . . Weel, what dae ye dae if it bursts?’

‘Never let bug.’

‘Ay, but–but what aboot the cream?’

‘Best cairry an extra hanky an’ plug yer sleeve wi’ it.’

After a dismal pause, Willie inquired: ‘Could ye no get her to leave the cream cookies oot o’ her programme, Macgreegor?’

Macgregor looked dubious. ‘She’s gey saft on them hersel’, an’ she micht be offendit if we refused them. Of course they dinna scoot up the sleeve every time.’

‘Oh!’–more hopefully.

‘Whiles they explode doon the waistcoat–I mean tunic.’

‘That’s enough!’ wailed Willie. ‘If the Clyde was handy, I wud gang an’ droon masel’!’

On the third day following, they obtained late passes. Willie’s uneasiness was considerable, yet so was his vanity. He affected an absurdly devil-may-care deportment which so stirred Macgregor’s sense of pity that he had thoughts of taking back what he had said about the cream cookies. But at the last moment his bootlace snapped. . . .

Willie’s toilet was the most careful he had ever made, and included an application of exceeding fragrant pomade pilfered from his corporal’s supply and laid on thickly enough to stop a leak. Finally, having armed himself with his new cane and put seven breath perfumers and a cigarette in his mouth, he approached the stooping Macgregor and declared himself ready for the road.

‘What’s that atrocious smell?’ demanded Macgregor, with unwonted crustiness.

For once in his life Willie had no answer at hand, and for once he blushed.

XII

A TEA-PARTY

Christina was serving a customer when her two guests entered the shop. Unembarrassed she beamed on both and signed to Macgregor to go ‘right in.’ So Macgregor conducted his friend, who during the journey had betrayed increasing indications of ‘funk,’ into the absent owner’s living-room, which Christina had contrived to make brighter looking than for many a year.

At the sight of the laden table Willie took fright and declared his intention of doing an immediate ‘slope.’ ‘Ye didna tell me,’ he complained, ‘there was to be a big compn’y.’

Macgregor grabbed him by the arm. ‘Keep yer hair on, Wullie. There’ll be naebody but the three o’ us. There’s nae scrimp aboot Christina,’ he added with pride.

‘I believe ye!’ responded the reassured guest. ‘Gor, I never seen as much pastries in a’ ma born days–no but what I’m ready to dae ma bit.’

Just then Christina entered, remarking:

‘It’s an awfu’ job tryin’ to sell what a person doesna want to a person that wants what ye ha’ena got; but I done it this time. Evenin’, Mac. Mr. Thomson, I am delighted to meet ye.’

‘Aw,’ murmured Willie helplessly.

‘Dinna terrify him,’ Macgregor whispered.

‘Sorry,’ she said with quick compunction. ‘I’m gled to see ye, Wullie. Sit doon an’ feel at hame. The kettle’s jist at the bile. See, tak’ Miss Tod’s chair. She’ll like to think that a sojer sat in it. She’ll never ha’e been as near to a man. I was askin’ her the ither nicht if she had ever had a lad. The answer was in the negative.’

‘Maybe,’ Macgregor suggested, ‘she didna like to tell ye the truth.’

Christina smiled gently, saying, ‘Ye’ve a lot to learn aboot us females, Mac.’

‘By Jings, ye’re richt there!’ Willie exploded, and immediately subsided in confusion.

‘Ay,’ she agreed placidly; ‘he’s no a connoisseur like you, Wullie. Talkin’ o’ females, hoo’s yer aunt keepin’?’

‘Rotten–at least she was fine the last time I seen her ugly.’

‘The decay seems to ha’e been rapid. But, seriously, it’s a peety ye canna love yer aunt better—-‘

Love her! Oh, help!’ The ‘p’ was sounded just in time, and Willie glanced at Macgregor to see whether he had noticed the stumble.

Macgregor, however, had forgotten Willie–unless, perhaps to wish him a hundred miles away. Christina was wearing a new white blouse which showed a little bit of her neck, with a bow of her favourite scarlet at the opening.

‘D’ye ken what ma aunt done to me the ither day?’ Willie proceeded, craving for sympathy. ‘I was terrible hard up, an’ I wrote her a nice letter on a caird wi’ a view o’ Glesca Cathedral on it, includin’ the graveyaird–cost me a penny; an’ what dae ye think she sent me back? A bl–oomin’ trac’!’

At that moment the kettle boiled, and Christina, exclaiming ‘Oh, mercy!’ sprang to the hearth. Over her shoulder she said in a voice that wavered slightly:

‘That was hard cheese, Wullie, but ye maun send her a cheerier-like caird next time. I’ll stand ye an optimistic specimen afore ye leave the shop.’

‘Thenk ye! A–of course we’ll ha’e to draw the line at picturs o’ folk dookin’ in the sad sea waves or canoodlin’ on the shore—-‘

Christina, teapot in one hand, kettle in the other, burst out laughing.

‘Mind ye dinna burn yersel’!’ cried Macgregor, starting into life.

‘Haud the kettle, Mac,’ said she. ‘It’s no fair o’ Wullie to be sae funny.’

‘I wasna funny!’ Willie protested.

‘It’s yer notion o’ the optimistic that tickled me,’ she said. ‘Pour, Mac; I’m steady noo. But ye’re quite richt, Wullie. We canna be ower discreet when cash is involved. I’ll get some high-class cairds for ye to inspect till the tea’s infused.’

Macgregor would dearly have liked to follow her into the shop.

‘She’s a clinker,’ observed Willie under his breath.

‘Eh?’

‘Naething.’

Which was all the conversation during the absence of the hostess.

She returned with a tray. Willie was tempted by a card with the ‘V.C.’ emblazoned on it, but feared it would look ‘swanky’ on his part. Though hampered by the adverse criticisms of Macgregor, who naturally wanted to hold Christina’s hand under cover of the table as long as possible, he succeeded at last in choosing one entitled ‘The Soldier’s Return,’ depicting a bronzed youth running to embrace an old lady awaiting him in a cottage porch.

‘If that doesna touch the spot,’ said Christina, ‘I’m a duchess.’

They sat down to tea.

Much to Willie’s relief, Christina apparently forgot all about a blessing. Anxious to please, he expressed admiration at the abundance of good things.

‘I like to see a table groanin’,’ said the hospitable hostess.

‘There’ll be mair nor the table groanin’ afore lang,’ observed Macgregor.

They all laughed like happy people, especially Willie, until with a start he remembered the cream cookies and his omission to bring an extra hanky. All the same, he proceeded to enjoy himself pretty heartily, and did the agreeable to the best of his ability, furnishing sundry anecdotes of camp life which were as new to Macgregor as they probably were to himself. At last–

‘Try a cream cookie,’ said Christina.

But he could not face it. ‘Cream,’ he said mournfully, ‘doesna agree wi’ me. The last time I had cream–ma aunt had got it in for her cat that had the staggers–I lay in agony for three days an’ three nichts an’ several ‘oors into the bargain. Ma aunt feared I was gaun to croak ma last.’

Macgregor made a choking sound, while Christina gravely hoped that the cat had also recovered, and passed the macaroons.

‘Thenk ye,’ said Willie, and readily resumed operations. But he was not a little disgusted to note presently that Christina and Macgregor enjoyed their cream cookies without the slightest mishap.

His geniality was not fully restored until, at the end of the meal, Christina laid a box of superior cigarettes between her two guests.

‘May I drap deid in five meenutes,’ he declared, ‘if ever I was treated like this afore! Macgreegor, ye’re jist a damp lucky deevil!’

‘Oh, whisht!’ said Christina smiling.

‘Ye should get a girl, Wullie,’ Macgregor remarked with the air of an old married man.

‘I ha’ena your luck, ma lad. If I was trustin’ a girl, I’ll bet ye a bob she wud turn oot to be yin o’ the sort that pinches a chap’s wages afore they’re warmed in his pooch, an’ objec’s to him smokin’ a fag, an’ tak’s the huff if he calls her fig-face.’

‘I’m afraid ye’re a pessimist,’ Christina said. ‘I used to dae a bit in that line masel’. Ma favourite motto was: “Cheer up–ye’ll soon be deid!” But I got past that, an’ so will you.’

With a sardonic smile Willie shook his head and took another cigarette; and just then Christina had to go to attend to a customer.

Willie turned to his friend. ‘Thon was a dirty trick aboot the cookies. I’ve a guid mind to bide here as lang as you.’

‘I didna think ye wud hae been feart for a cookie, Wullie. Of course, I’ll never tell her.’

‘Weel, I accep’ yer apology. Can ye len’ us thruppence? I want to purchase some War Loan. . . . By Jings, ye’re no a bad sort, Macgreegor. . . . Hoo dae ye think I behaved masel’?’

‘No that bad.’

‘Weel, I want ye to tell her I ha’end enjoyed masel’ sae much since ma Uncle Peter’s funeral, ten year back.’

‘Tell her yersel’.’

Willie pocketed a few of the superior cigarettes, and rose. ‘It’s sax-thirty,’ he said. ‘Her an’ you’ll be nane the waur o’ hauf an’ ‘oor in private. See? So long! She’s a clinker!’

And before Macgregor realized it, Willie had bolted through the shop and into the street.

Christina returned, her eyes wide. ‘What gaed wrang wi’ him, Mac?’

‘Come here an’ I’ll tell ye.’

XIII

MISS TOD RETURNS

‘It was awfu’ dacent o’ Wullie to clear oot,’ Macgregor remarked happily, as he moved his chair close to the one on which Christina had just seated herself.

Christina’s chin went up. ‘It wud ha’e been dacenter o’ him to ha’e waited till the time he was invited to wait.’

‘But he meant weel. I’m sure he didna want to gang, but he fancied it wud be nice to let you an’ me ha’e a–a . . .’

‘I beg yer pardon?’

‘Ach, ye ken what I mean. He fancied we wud enjoy a wee whiley jist by oorsel’s.’

‘Speak for yersel’! I’m thinkin’ it was exceedingly rude o’ him to slope wi’oot tellin’ me he had enjoyed his tea.’

‘He asked me to tell ye that he hadna enjoyed hissel’ sae weel since his uncle’s funeral, ten year back.’

Christina gave a little sniff. ‘That’s a nice sort o’ compliment. Funeral, indeed!’

‘Christina! what’s vexin’ ye?’

‘Wha said I was vexed?’

‘I’ve seen ye lookin’ happier.’

‘Are ye a judge o’ happiness?’

‘I ken when I’m no happy–an’ that’s the noo. But I warn ye, I’m no gaun to stick it!’

‘What’s made ye unhappy?’ she coldly inquired.

‘You !’

‘Dear me!’–ironically.

‘Ay, jist dear you!’ And with these words he caught her round the shoulders and kissed her.

Breathless and rather ruffled she exclaimed, ‘If ye dae that again, I’ll—-‘

He did it again.

‘Ye’re gettin’ terrible forward,’ she said, half angry, half amused.

‘High time!’

She regarded him with amazement.

Suddenly he said: ‘Ye’re as much mines as I’m yours. Deny it, if ye can.’

For perhaps the first time in her life Christina temporized. ‘Can ye sweer ye didna arrange wi’ Wullie to leave early?’

‘Eh?’

The note of innocence satisfied her. ‘Weel,’ she said graciously, ‘I forgive ye.’

‘What for?’

‘Takin’ liberties.’

Her lips wavered to a smile and he could not refrain from kissing them once more.

‘Here, hauf time!’ she cried, and burst out laughing.

‘This is the best yet,’ he said jubilantly. ‘Three goals in twa meenutes! In future I’ll kiss ye as often as I like.’

‘We’ll see aboot that. . . . The sojerin’ has changed ye a lot,’ she added thoughtfully.

‘D’ye no like the improvement?’

‘I’ll tell ye when I observe it. Noo sit still an’ behave yersel’, an’ tell me the latest camp rumours.’

Just then the bell over the door in the shop went off.

‘Oh, dash yer customers!’ said Macgregor.

Christina was moving from the room when—-

‘Are ye there, dearie?’ called a familiar female voice.

‘Holy Moses!’ she whispered. ‘It’s Miss Tod, hame three days afore her time.’

‘Oh, criffens!’ gasped Macgregor. ‘What’ll I dae?’

‘Ye can either hide in the coal bunker, or bide whaur ye are–like a sojer. She’ll no devour ye.’

Christina then ran out to receive her employer, which she did without embarrassment.

‘What a peety ye’re ower late for ma wee tea-pairty. An’ hoo are ye?’ Macgregor heard her saying.

‘Aw, I was sweirt to disturb ye wi’ yer’ frien’s, lassie,’ replied Miss Tod, who had been advised by postcard of Christina’s doings, ‘but I _couldna_ bide in thon place anither nicht.’

‘Dear, dear!’ the girl said sympathizingly. ‘Did ye no get on wi’ yer auld frien’, or did the poultry attack ye? Come ben, come ben. There’s jist Macgreegor left, an’ he hasna consumed absolutely everything. I’ll get ye a cup o’ fresh tea in a jiffy.’

Smiling faintly but kindly, Miss Tod greeted Macgregor, apologized for disturbing him, and subsided into her old chair.

‘Oh, I’m thenkfu’ to be hame,’ she sighed, while Christina flew to her hospitable duties. ‘Ye’ve got the room awfu’ nice, dearie.’

‘Does the smell o’ the ceegarettes annoy ye?’ inquired Macgregor, now more at ease, though still ashamed of his recent panic.

‘Na, na; it’s jist deleecious,’ she protested, ‘efter the smell o’ the country.’

‘Did ye no like the country, Miss Tod?’

‘Maybe I could ha’e endured it till the week was up, if it hadna been for ma auld frien’. Ye see, the puir body couldna speak or think o’ onything excep’ airyplanes fleein’ through the air an’ drappin’ bombs on her dwellin’ hoose an’ her hen-hoose, no forgettin’ her pig-hoose. Mornin’, noon an’ nicht, she kep’ speirin’ at me if I was prepared to meet ma Maker, maybe wantin’ a leg. Oh, I was rale vexed for her, I tell ye, but when she took the mattress aff ma bed to protect her sewin’ machine frae bombs, I says to masel’: ‘If I’ve got to dee, I wud like to dae it as comfortable as I can, an’ I’m sure ma Maker’ll no objec’ to that . . . an’ so, at last, I jist tied up ma things in the broon paper, an’ said I had enjoyed masel’ fine, but was anxious aboot the shop–a terrible falsehood, dearie!–an’ gaed to catch the sax o’clock train, an’ catched the yin afore it. . . . An’ here I am. I wud ha’e let ye enjoy yer pairty in peace, but what wi’ the forebodin’s o’ ma auld frien’ an’ the scent o’ the hens an’ pigs, I could thole nae longer.’

‘In short,’ Christina brightly remarked, ‘ye was completely fed up. Weel, weel, ye’ll sune forget aboot yer troubles in the joys o’ pursuin’ pastries. We’ll fetch the table close to ye so as ye can fall to wi’oot unduly streetchin’ yer neck. Mac, get busy! Toast this cookie.’

‘She’s a great manager,’ Miss Tod said, smiling to Macgregor. ‘But she’ll mak’ ye a rael guid wife when ye come back frae the wars—-‘

‘Oh, whisht, Miss Tod!’ cried Christina. ‘Ye’ll cause him to blush.’ Which was rather a mean way of diverting attention from her own complexion.

However, at that moment the bell rang, and exclaiming, ‘Anither boom in trade!’ she darted into the shop.

The customer seemed to be in a great hurry, for almost immediately she reappeared in the sitting-room. She was smiling and carried a small package in her hand.

‘Guess wha it was,’ said she.

‘The meenister,’ replied Miss Tod, who for some mysterious reason always guessed the reverend gentleman, who happened to be a customer.

‘On the contrary,’ said Christina.

‘Wullie Thomson,’ said Macgregor, suddenly remembering the borrowed threepence.

‘Up dux! Ye deserve a sweetie.’ She presented the bag, open. ‘What sort are they?’

He laughed and answered–‘War Loan Lozengers.’

XIV

AUNT PURDIE INTERVENES

The battalion was not an hour returned from the longest, hottest, dustiest and most exhausting route march yet experienced. Macgregor was stretched on his bed, a newspaper over his face, when an orderly shook him and shoved a visiting card into his hand.

‘She’s waitin’ ootside,’ he said and, with a laugh, departed.

Macgregor rubbed his eyes and read:

MRS. ROBERT PURDIE.
13, _King’s Mansions, W_ _3rd Wednesday._

‘Oh, criffens!’ he groaned. ‘Ma aunt!’ And proceeded with more haste than alacrity to tidy himself, while wondering what on earth she had come for.

Willie, scenting profit in a rich relation, though not his own, proffered his company, which was rather curtly refused. Nevertheless, he followed his friend.

Macgregor joined his aunt in the blazing sunshine. Her greeting was kindly if patronizing.

‘Sorry to keep ye waitin’, Aunt Purdie,’ he said respectfully. ‘If I had kent ye was comin’—-‘

‘I understood a good soldier was always prepared for any emergency—-‘

‘Excep’ when he’s aff duty, mistress.’ This from Willie, who had taken up his position a little way behind Macgregor, an ingratiating grin on his countenance.

Aunt Purdie drew up her tall, gaunt, richly-clad figure and examined Private Thomson through eye-glasses on a long tortoise-shell handle.

‘Macgregor, who is this gentleman?’

‘It’s jist Wullie Thomson,’ said Macgregor, annoyed but reluctant to hurt his friend’s feelings. ‘D’ye no mind him?’

‘I have a very exclusive memory for faces. . . Dear me, he is going away!’

It was so. Either the glasses, or being called a gentleman, or both, had been too much even for Willie.

‘Is the colonel in the vicinity?’ Aunt Purdie demanded, recalling Macgregor’s wondering gaze from the retreating figure.

‘I couldna say. He’s liker to be in a cauld bath.’

‘You have, of course, informed him who your uncle is?’

‘Me an’ the colonel ha’ena done much hob-nobbin’ as yet,’ Macgregor said, smiling.

‘His mother used to obtain her groceries from your uncle. If you could have presented the colonel to me–well, never mind. I presume the major is on the _quee vive_.’

‘He’ll be ha’ein’ a wash an’ brush up, I wud say.’

‘But why are you not being drilled or digging up trenches or firing guns—-‘

‘We’re a’ deid men this efternune. Had a big rout mairch the day.’

‘Oh, indeed! Well, when does the band play?’

‘The baun’s burstit wi’ the rout mairch. It couldna blaw the ash aff a ceegarette. I’m rael sorry—-‘

‘I would like to inspect the apartments you live in. Pray conduct me—-‘

‘Some o’ the chaps is cleanin’ theirsel’s. If ye like, I’ll tell them to hurry up or get ablow the blankets.’

‘Certainly not!’ said Mrs. Purdie with decision. ‘Is there no tea-room adjacent?’

‘Jist the canteen. I doobt I couldna I tak’ ye inside, but I could fetch ye oot a drink–something T.T., I suppose?’

She waved the offer away. ‘Is there | nothing to be perceived or observed in this camp?’ she inquired with some impatience. |

Her nephew scratched his head. ‘Weel,’ he said at last, ‘there’s the view frae this end, an’ there’s the view frae the ither end. I’m sorry ye’ve come when there’s naething daein’.’

‘So am I. However, it is not the time to indulge in discriminations. Your uncle thought it was better for me to come than to write a letter.’

‘Is onything wrang wi’ ma uncle?’ Macgregor asked anxiously.

‘Barring an invidious bunion, he is in his usual health. But we are going to Aberdeen to-morrow, for a fortnight, and we have invited your intended to come with us. She—-‘

‘Christina! But she canna gang awa’ to Aberdeen when—-‘ He stopped short, at a loss. He had an appointment with Christina for the following evening. Surely—-

‘I arranged with Miss Tod this morning. Christina will be writing to you, I presume.’

‘She–she’s gaun wi’ ye?’

‘Certainly–D.V., of course.’

‘For a–a fortnicht?’

‘The change will be good for her. You must not be selfish. Your uncle was afraid you might be put out: that is why I came to explain. But apart from the beneficial change, Christina, as I observed to your uncle, ought to see the world while she is young.’

Macgregor answered nothing. Possibly he did not catch her latter remarks. Christina going away for a fortnight, and he might be ordered abroad at any moment!

‘Come,’ said his aunt, kindly enough, ‘don’t be huffy.’

Mercifully, just then an officer passed. In the action of saluting Macgregor regained self-control.

‘I hope ye get guid weather at Aberdeen,’ he managed to say, and his aunt admired him even more than at the hour of his enlistment.

‘Yer uncle an’ me jist wishes ye was free to jine us,’ she said with unwonted warmth and homeliness of accent. Her hand went to the fastening of her purse, and hesitated. No! Something told her this was not the moment for a gift, however splendid.

‘Well, I must be going,’ she remarked, stiffening again. ‘Kindly conduct me to the exit. I thought there would have been more to inspire the mind in this place. . . . Good-bye. We will take good care of Christina.’

* * * * *

Never in his life had Macgregor been so deeply hurt and angered–not even in the old days by Aunt Purdie, who was not now the object of his resentment.

Willie, who always tried to make the best of things, insults not excepted, approached presently with a hopeful appeal for a loan.

‘Gang to blazes!’ was the response.

Willie could scarce believe his ears. ‘Macgreegor! did she no cough up onything?’

Macgregor walked on.

‘An’ she fancies hersel’ for a —- swell!’ exclaimed Willie viciously.

‘Anither word an’ I’ll knock the face aff ye!’

It was Willie’s turn to feel resentment.

In the evening came a note from Christina, hurriedly written. She was terribly busy getting ready for the morning train. It was most kind of Mrs. Purdie. Her own uncle must have let drop to Mr. Purdie that a summer outing this year was not possible, and Mr. Purdie must have told Mrs. Purdie. . . . Of course, she, Christina, would never have dreamed of going away otherwise. But the time would soon pass, Mac, and she intended to enjoy it thoroughly. . . .

If only she had left out that last sentence! But what true lover has not been stabbed by something very like it in his time?

XV

THE FAT GIRL AGAIN

Macgregor dropped his reply to Christina’s unsatisfactory note into the pillar-box and, half wishing he had destroyed it instead, rejoined the faithful Willie Thomson. He still looked so gloomy that Willie once more demanded to be told what the —- was up with him. Receiving no response, Willie remarked:

‘If ye tak’ a face like that to yer girl, she’ll be wantin’ to play a tune on it.’

Macgregor held his peace. They had just arrived in Glasgow, but without a trace of the usual eagerness on his part.

‘I believe,’ said Willie, with an inspiration, ‘her an’ you ha’e cast oot.’

‘Clay up! She’s awa’ her holidays.’

‘Save us! Awa’ her holidays!’ cried Willie, uttering, unawares, his friend’s bitterest thought–‘an’ we may get oor mairchin’ orders ony meenute! Weel, weel, preserve me frae the female sect! I suppose ye’ll be for gi’ein’ yer ain folk a treat for a change.’

‘They’re a’ at Rothesay, at Granpaw Purdie’s,’ Macgregor returned shortly, now half glad that he had let the letter go.

It was not a harsh letter, yet neither was it a humble one. In effect, it informed Christina that she was welcome to disport herself even though the writer lay dead in a trench. While intended to be freezing, it had been written in considerable heat, physical and mental.

‘Then what are ye gaun to dae the nicht?’ Willie pursued, his mind simmering with curiosity. Macgregor had been very queer since his aunt’s visit of the previous afternoon, and the arrival of a letter, eagerly grabbed, had by no means mitigated the queerness. Willie was convinced that something had gone wrong between Macgregor and Christina. He would not be sorry to see the engagement broken. Macgregor would have more time and cash to spend on his friends. On the other hand, Christina was undoubtedly a ‘clinker’ in her way, and Willie could do with more hospitality like hers. Well, there was no saying what might happen if she were free and Macgregor attached to another girl. . . .

‘What are ye gaun to dae the nicht, Macgreegor?’ he repeated, rousing himself as well as his friend.

‘Dear knows,’ came the dreary answer. ‘I think I’ll awa’ back to the camp.’ Yet if he did not greatly desire Willie’s company, he desired his own less.

‘Cheer up for ony favour,’ said Willie. ‘If I could afford it, I wud stan’ ye a feed.’

The hint was not taken, and they strolled on, aimlessly so far as Macgregor was concerned.

About six o’clock, and while they were passing a large drapery warehouse, Willie gave his friend a violent nudge and hoarsely whispered:

‘Gor! See thon!’

‘What?’

‘Thon girl!’–pointing to a damsel in a dark skirt and pink blouse, who had just emerged from the warehouse.

‘What aboot her?’ said Macgregor impatiently,

‘It’s her–the fat yin–the girl I burst the twa bob on!’

‘She’s no that fat,’ Macgregor remarked without interest. Then suddenly–‘Here! What are ye efter?’

‘Her! She’s fat when ye’re close to her. Come on! I’ll introjuice ye.’

‘Thenk ye! I’m no takin’ ony.’

‘Jist for fun. I want to see her face when she sees me again.’

‘Weel, I’ll no prevent ye. So long.’ At that moment the girl was held up at a busy crossing.

‘Hullo, Maggie!’ said Willie pertly.

‘I’m off,’ said Macgregor–but his arm was gripped.

The girl turned. ‘Hullo,’ she said coolly; ‘still livin’?’ Catching sight of Macgregor, she giggled. It was not an unpleasing giggle. Lean girls cannot produce it.

‘This is Private Macgreegor Robi’son,’ said Willie, unabashed.

She smiled and held out her hand. After a moment she said to Willie: ‘Are ye no gaun to tell him ma name, stupid?’

‘I forget it, except the Maggie.’

‘Aweel,’ she said good-humouredly, ‘Private Robi’son’ll jist ha’e to content hissel’ wi’ that, though it’s a terrible common name.’ She did the giggle again.

The chance of crossing came, and they all moved over; on the crowded pavement it was impossible to proceed three abreast.

‘Never mind me,’ said Willie humorously.

‘Wha’s mindin’ you?’ she retorted.

‘Gettin’ hame?’ said Macgregor with an effort at politeness, while fuming inwardly.

‘Jist that. Awfu’ warm weather, is’t no? It was fair meltin’ in the warehoose the day. I’m fair dished up.’ She heaved a sigh, which was no more unpleasing than her giggle. ‘It’s killin’ weather for you sojer lads,’ she added kindly.

Macgregor experienced a wavelet of sympathy. ‘Wud ye like a slider?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Ye’re awfu’ kind. I could dae wi’ it fine.’

Presently the three were seated in an ice-cream saloon. The conversation was supplied mainly by the girl and Willie, and took the form of a wordy sparring match. Every time she scored a point the girl glanced at Macgregor. He became mildly amused by her repartee, and at last took a cautious look at her.

She was certainly stout, but not with a clumsy stoutness; in fact, her figure was rather attractive. She had dark brown hair, long lashed, soft, dark eyes, a provocative, mobile mouth, and a nice pinky-tan colouring. At the same time, she was too frankly forward and consistently impudent for Macgregor’s taste; and he noticed that her hands were not pretty like Christina’s.

She caught his eye, and he smiled back, but absently. He was wondering what Christina was doing and how she would take his letter in the morning. . . . He consulted his watch. A long, empty evening lay before him. How on earth was he to fill it? He wanted distraction, and already his companions’ chaff was getting tiresome.

On the spur of the moment–‘What aboot a pictur hoose?’ he said.

‘That’s the cheese!’ cried Willie.

But Maggie shook her head and sighed, and explained that her mother was expecting her home for tea, and sighed again.

‘Ha’e yer tea wi’ us,’ said the hospitable Macgregor.

She glanced at him under lowered lashes, her colour rising. ‘My! ye’re awfu’ kind,’ she said softly. ‘I wish to goodness I could.’

‘Scoot hame an’ tell yer mither, an’ we’ll wait for ye here,’ said stage-manager William.

‘I wudna trust _you_ . . . but I think I could trust _him_.’

‘Oh, we’ll wait sure enough,’ Macgregor said indifferently.

‘I’ll risk it!’ she cried, and straightway departed.

Willie grinned at his friend. ‘What dae ye think o’ fat Maggie?’ he said.

‘Naething,’ answered Mac, and refused to be drawn into further conversation.

Within half an hour she was back, flushed and bright of eye. She had on a pink print, crisp and fresh, a flowery hat, gloves carefully mended, neat shoes and transparent stockings.

‘By Jings, ye’re dressed to kill at a thoosan’ yairds!’ Willie observed.

Ignoring him, she looked anxiously for the other’s approval.

‘D’ye like hot pies?’ he inquired, rising and stretching himself.

An hour later, in the picture house a heartrending, soul thrilling melodrama was at its last gasp. The long suffering heroine was in the arms of the long misjudged, misfortune-ridden, but ever faithful hero.

‘Oh, lovely!’ murmured Maggie.

Macgregor said nothing, but his eyes were moist. He may, or may not, have been conscious of a plump, warm, thinly-clad shoulder close against his arm.

Hero and heroine vanished. The lights went up. Macgregor blew his nose, then looked past the fat girl to make a scoffing remark to Willie.

But Willie’s seat was vacant.

* * * * *

Maggie laid her ungloved hand on the adjoining seat. ‘It’s warm,’ she informed Macgregor. ‘He canna be lang awa’.’

‘Did he no say he was comin’ back?’ Macgregor asked rather irritably.

‘He never said a word to me. I didna notice him gang: I was that ta’en up wi’ the picturs. But never heed,’ she went on cheerfully; ‘it’s a guid riddance o’ bad rubbish. I wonder what’s next on the prog—-

‘But this’ll no dae! He–he’s your frien’.’

‘Him! Excuse me for seemin’ to smile. I can tell ye I was surprised to see a dacent-like chap like you sae chummy wi’ sic a bad character as him.’

‘Aw, Wullie Thomson’s no near as bad as his character. A’ the same, he had nae business to slope wi’oot lettin’ us ken. But he’ll likely be comin’ back. We’ll wait for five meenutes an’ see.’

Maggie drew herself up. ‘I prefer no to wait where I’m no welcome,’ she said in a deeply offended tone, and made to rise.

He caught her plump arm. ‘Wha said ye wasna welcome? Eat yer sweeties an’ dinna talk nonsense. If ye want to see the rest o’ the picturs, I’m on. I’ve naething else to dae the nicht.’

After a slight pause. ‘Dae ye want me to bide–Macgreegor?’

‘I’m asking ye.’

She sighed. ‘Ye’re a queer lad. What’s yer age?’

‘Nineteen.’

‘Same as mines!’ She was twenty-two. ‘When’s yer birthday?’

‘Third o’ Mairch.’

‘Same again!’ She had been born on the 14th of December. ‘My! that’s a strange dooble coincidence! We ought to be guid frien’s, you an’ me.’

‘What for no?’ said Macgregor carelessly.

Once more the house was darkened. A comic film was unrolled. Now and then Macgregor chuckled with moderate heartiness.

‘Enjoyin’ yersel’?’ she said in a chocolate whisper, close to his ear.

‘So, so.’

‘Ye’re like me. I prefer the serious picturs. Real life an’ true love for me! Ha’e a sweetie? Oh, ye’re smokin’. As I was sayin’, ye’re a queer lad, Macgreegor.’ She leaned against his arm. ‘What made ye stan’ me a slider, an’ a champion tea, an’ they nice sweeties, an’ a best sate in a pictur hoose–when ye wasna extra keen on ma comp’ny?’

‘Dear knows.’

She drew away from him so smartly that he turned his face towards her. ‘Oh, crool!’ she murmured, and put her handkerchief to her eyes.

‘Dinna dae that!’ he whispered, alarmed. ‘What’s up?’

‘Ye–ye insulted me.’

‘Insulted ye! Guid kens I didna mean it. What did I say?’

‘Oh, dear, I’ll never get ower it.’

‘Havers! I’ll apologize if ye tell me what I said. Dinna greet, for ony favour. Ye’ll ha’e the folk lookin’ at us. Listen, Mary–that’s yer name, is’t no?’

‘It’s Maggie, ye impiddent thing!’

‘Weel, Maggie, I apologize for whatever I said, whether I said it or no. I’m no ma usual the nicht, so ye maun try for to excuse me. I certainly never meant for to hurt yer feelin’s.’

She dropped the handkerchief. ‘Ha’e ye got a sair heid?’

‘Ay–something like that. So let me doon easy.’

She slid her hand under his which was overhanging the division between the seats.

‘I’m sorry I was silly, but I’m that tender-hearted, I was feart ye was takin’ yer fun aff me. I’m awfu’ vexed ye’ve got a sair heid. I suppose it’s the heat. Ony objection to me callin’ ye Macgreegor?’

‘That’s a’ richt,’ he replied kindly but uneasily.

Her fingers were round his, and seemingly she forgot they were there, even when the lights went up. And he hadn’t the courage –shall we say?–to withdraw them.

The succeeding film depicted a throbbing love story.

‘This is mair in oor line,’ she remarked confidentially.

Every time the sentiment rose to a high temperature, which was pretty often, Macgregor felt a warm pressure on his fingers. He had never before had a similar experience, not even in the half-forgotten days of Jessie Mary; for Jessie Mary had not become the pursuer until he had betrayed anxiety to escape from her toils. And he had been only seventeen then.

The warm pressure made him uncomfortable, but not physically so–and, apart from conscience, perhaps not altogether spiritually so. For, after all, it’s a very sore young manly heart, indeed, that can refuse the solace, or distraction, offered in the close proximity of young womanhood of the Maggie sort and shape. In other words, Macgregor may have been conscientiously afraid, but he had no disposition to run away.

About nine-thirty they came out. While he looked a little dazed and defiant, she appeared entirely happy and self-possessed, with her hand in his arm as though he had belonged to her for quite a long time. But at the gorgeous portals she stopped short with a cry of dismay. It was raining heavily.

‘I’ve nae umburella,’ she said, piteously regarding her fine feathers. ‘Ma things’ll be ruined.’

‘I’ll get ye a cab,’ he said after some hesitation induced less by consideration of the expense than by the sheer novelty of the proceeding. Ere she could respond he was gone. Not without trouble and a thorough drenching he discovered a decrepit four-wheeler.

Maggie had never been so proud as at the moment when he handed her in, awkwardly enough, but with a certain shy respectfulness which she found entirely delicious.

He gave the man the address, learned the fare, then came back to the door and handed the girl the necessary money.

‘Na!’ she cried in a panic, ‘I’ll no gang unless ye come wi’ me. I–I wud be feart to sit ma lane in the cab. Come, lad; ye’ve plenty time.’

He had no more than enough, but he got in after telling the man to drive as quickly as possible.

‘Sit here,’ she said, patting the cushion at her side.

He obeyed, and then followed a long pause while the cab rattled over the granite. She unpinned and removed her hat and leaned against him heavily yet softly.

‘Ye’re no sayin’ a great deal,’ she remarked at last. ‘What girl are ye thinkin’ aboot?’

‘Ach, I’m dashed wearit,’ he said. ‘I didna sleep a wink last nicht.’

‘Puir sojer laddie!’ Her smooth, hot cheek touched his. ‘Pit yer heid on ma shouther. . . . I like ye because ye’re shy . . . but ye needna be ower shy.’

Suddenly he gave a foolish laugh and thrust his arm round her waist. She heaved a sigh of content.

* * * * *

By making all haste Macgregor managed to get back to the camp in advance of Willie. He was in bed, his eyes hard shut, when his friend appeared in the billet.

Willie, who was unusually flushed, bent over him and, sniggering, asked questions. Getting no response, he retired grinning and winking at no one in particular.

Macgregor did not sleep well. If you could have listened to his secret thoughts you would have heard, among other dreary things–

‘But I didna kiss her; I didna kiss her.’

XVI

CONSCIENCE AND A COCOA-NUT

With one thing and another Christina, during her first evening in Aberdeen, had no opportunity of sending her betrothed more than a postcard announcing her safe arrival; but she went to bed with every intention of sending him on the morrow the longest and sweetest letter she had ever written. The receipt of Macgregor’s letter, with all its implied reproaches, however, not only hurt her feelings, but set her pride up in arms. ‘He had nae business to write as if I was a selfish thing; as if I had nae right to decide for masel’!’ As a matter of fact, her sole reason for accepting Mrs. Purdie’s invitation had been a fear of offending Macgregor’s important relatives by a refusal. Heaven knew she had not wanted to put 150 miles between her lad and herself at such a time.

Still, as Macgregor might have known by now, it was always a mistake to try to hustle Christina in any way. Her reply condescended neither to explanations nor defence. Written in her superior, and rather high-flown English, which she was well aware he detested, it practically ignored his epistle and took the form of an essay on the delights of travel, the charm of residence in the Northern City, the kindliness and generosity of host and hostess. She was not without compunction, especially when Uncle Purdie expressed the hope that she was sending the lad something to ‘keep up his pecker,’ but she let the letter go, telling herself that it would be ‘good for him.’

The postcard was received by Macgregor after an uneasy night and a shameful awakening. The meagre message made him more miserable than angry. In the circumstances it was, he felt bound to admit, as much as he deserved. Mercifully, Willie had such a ‘rotten head’ that he was unable to plague his unhappy friend, and the day turned out to be a particularly busy one for the battalion. Next morning brought the letter. Macgregor was furious, until Conscience asked him what he had to complain about.

Willie, his mischievous self again, got in a nasty one by inquiring how much he had paid for the cab the night before last.

‘Ye dirty spy!’ cried Macgregor. ‘What for did ye hook it in the pictur’ hoose an’ leave her wi’ me? She was _your_ affair.’

‘I never asked her to spend the evening’,’ Willie retorted, truthfully enough, ‘Twa’s comp’ny.’

Macgregor felt his face growing hot. With an effort he said coldly: ‘If ye had stopped wi’ us ye wudna ha’e been back at the beer an’ broke yer pledge.’

‘Wha tell’t ye I was at the beer?’

‘Yer breath, ye eediot!’

‘Ho! so ye was pretendin’ ye was sleepin’ when I spoke to ye! Cooard to smell a man’s breath wi’ yer eyes shut!’

Macgregor turned wearily away. ‘It’s nae odds to me what ye drink,’ he said.

‘Ye should think shame to say a thing like that to a chap that hasna tasted but wance for near a year–at least, for several months,’ said Willie, following. ‘But I’ll forgive ye like a Christian. . . . For peety’s sake ten’ us a tanner. I ha’ena had a fag since yesterday. I’ll no split on ye.’ He winked and nudged Macgregor. ‘Maggie’s a whale for the cuddlin’–eh?’

It was too much. Macgregor turned and struck, and Willie went down. Then Macgregor, feeling sick of himself and the whole world, assisted the fallen one to his feet, shoved a shilling into his hand, and departed hastily.

He wrote a long, pleading letter to Christina and posted it–in the cook’s fire. Next day he tried again, avoiding personal matters. The result was a long rambling dissertation on musketry and the effect of the wind, etcetera, on one’s shots, all of which, with his best love, he forwarded to Aberdeen. In previous letters he had scarcely ever referred to his training, and then with the utmost brevity.

The letter, quite apart from its technicalities, puzzled Christina; and to puzzle Christina was to annoy her. To her mind it seemed to have been written for the sake of covering so much paper. Of course she wanted Macgregor to be interested in his work, but not to the exclusion of herself. She allowed the thing to rankle for three days. Then, as there was no further word from him, she became a little alarmed. But it was not in her to write all she felt, and so she sought to break the tension with something in the way of a joke.

Thus it came about that on the fifth morning, Macgregor received a postcard depicting a light-house on a rocky coast and bearing a few written words, also an oddly shaped parcel. The written words were:–

‘Delighted to hear you are doing so well at the shooting. Sending prize by same post.

This was better!–more like Christina herself. All was not lost! Eagerly he tore off the numerous wrappings and disclosed a–cocoa-nut! In his present state of mind he would have preferred an infernal machine. A cocoa-nut! She was just laughing at him! He was about to conceal the nut when Willie appeared.

‘My! ye’re the lucky deevil, Macgreegor! Frae yer uncle, I suppose. I’ll help ye to crack it. I’ll toss ye for the milk–if there’s ony.’

‘I’m no gaun to crack it the noo, Wullie,’ Macgregor said, restraining himself.

‘At nicht–eh?’

‘I’ll see.’

By evening, however, Willie was not thinking of cocoa-nuts or, indeed, of anything in the nature of eatables. His first experience in firing a rifle had taken place that afternoon and had left him with an aching jaw and a highly swollen face. On the morrow he was not much better.

‘I’ll no be able to use ma late pass the nicht,’ he said bitterly.

‘I’m no carin’ whether I use mines or no,’ Macgregor remarked from the depths of his dejection.

Willie gave him a grostesque wink, and observed: ‘I believe ye’re feart to gang into Glesca noo. Oh, they weemen!’

‘If ye hadna a face for pies already, I wud gi’e ye yin!’

‘Ah, but ye daurna strike a man that’s been wounded in his country’s service. Aw, gor, I wisht I had never enlisted! What country’s worth a mug like this? . . . Which girl are ye maist feart for, Macgreegor?’

Macgregor fled from the tormentor. He had not intended to use his late pass, but Willie’s taunt had altered everything. Afraid? He would soon show Willie! Also he would show Maggie! Likewise he would show–Well, Christina had no business to behave as if she were the only girl in the world, as if he were a fool. He had a right to enjoy himself, too. He had suffered enough, and the cocoa-nut was the limit! . . .

‘Are ye for Glesca?’ Willie persisted when Macgregor was giving himself a ‘tosh up’ in the billet.

‘Ay, am I!’ he snapped at last.

‘Hurray for the hero! Weel, gi’e Maggie yin on the squeaker frae me, an’ tell her no to greet for me, because I’m no worthy o’ her pure unselfish love, etceetera. I doobt the weather’s gaun to be ower fine for cabs the nicht, but dinna despair; it’s gettin’ dark fairly early noo. Enjoy yersel’ while ye’re young.’

‘That’s enough,’ said Macgregor. ‘Ye needna think ye’re the only chap that kens a thing or twa!’ And he left William gaping as widely as his painful jaw would permit.

On the way to town he decided to leave the whole affair to chance; that is to say, he would not arrive at the warehouse where the fat girl was employed until _after_ the usual closing hour of six. If she had gone, no matter; if she was still there, well, he couldn’t help it.

He arrived at 6.3, and she was there–in her fine feathers, too. She could not have expected him, he knew, but evidently she had hoped. He felt flattered and soothed, being unaware that she had had another swain in reserve in case he should fail her.

‘Fancy meetin’ you!’ she exclaimed, with a start of surprise. ‘Where’s the bad character?’

‘Gumbile,’ answered Macgregor, who would not for worlds have betrayed his friend’s lack of skill with the rifle.

‘Lang may it bile!’ she remarked unfeeling. ‘Wha are ye chasm’ the nicht, Macgreegor?’

‘You!’ he replied more boldly than brightly.

‘My! ye’re gettin’ quite forward-like,’ she said, with that pleasant giggle of hers.

‘High time!’ said he, recklessly.

After tea they went west and sat in the park. It was a lovely, hazy evening.

‘Wud ye rayther be in a pictur’ hoose, Maggie?’

‘What’s a pictur’ hoose to be compared wi’ this? If Heaven’s like this, I’m prepared to dee.’ With three rose-flavoured jujubes in her mouth, she sighed and nestled against him.

In silence his arm went round her waist.

* * * * *

While waiting for the car back to camp he wrote on a picture postcard–‘Cocoanut received with thanks. I wish I was dead,’–and dropped it into a pillar box.

About the same hour, in the billet, Willie was disposing of the cocoa-nut by raffle, tickets one penny each.

‘A queer-like present to get frae yer aunt,’ said some one.

‘Ay; but she’s a queer-like aunt,’ said Willie, pocketing the useful sum of tenpence.

XVII

‘FONDEST LOVE FROM MAGGIE’

Morning brought no letter from Christina, but at breakfast time Macgregor received the astounding intimation that he was granted three days’ leave, the same to commence with the very next hour.

‘What’s the guid o’ leave wi’ a jaw like this?’ wailed the lop-sided William who, with several other members of the billet, had been included in the dispensation.

‘I’ll tell ye what it means, onyway,’ said Lance-corporal Jake; ‘it means that we’ll be gettin’ a move on afore we’re mony days aulder.’

Macgregor did not enter into any of the discussions which followed. Having hurriedly made himself as smart as possible, he took car for Glasgow, and there caught the ten o’clock train for Aberdeen. He spent the ensuing four hours in wondering–not so much what he should say to Christina as what she would say to him. For himself, he was determined to make a clean breast of it; at the same time, he was not going to absolve Christina of all responsibility. He had behaved like a fool, he admitted, but he still had a just grievance. Yet it was with no very stout heart that he alighted in the big station, where everything was strange except the colour of khaki, and found his way to the quiet hotel where his friends had rooms.

And there on the steps was Uncle Purdie sunning himself and smoking a richly-banded cigar–by order of his spouse.

‘Preserve us!’ exclaimed Uncle Purdie in sheer astonishment at the sight of his nephew. ‘Preserve us!’ he repeated in quite another tone–that of concern. ‘But I’m rael glad to see ye, lad,’ he went on somewhat uneasily, ‘an’ yer aunt’ll be unco pleased. Come awa’ in, come awa’ in! Ye’ve gotten a bit leave, I preshume. An’ ye’ll be needin’ yer denner–eh? But we’ll sune see to that. ‘Mphm! Ay! Jist so! Eh–I suppose ye hadna time to write or wire–but what’s the odds? Ye’re welcome, Macgreegor, rael welcome.’

‘Jist got leave this mornin’–three days,’ Macgregor explained, not a little relieved to have found his uncle alone to begin with.

‘So I catched the first train I could.’

‘Jist that, exactly so,’ said Mr. Purdie with a heavy sigh that seemed irrelevant. ‘Weel, ma lad,’ he resumed hurriedly, ‘if ye tak’ a sate here, I’ll awa’ up the stair an’ get yer aunt. She generally has a bit snooze aboot this time–efter her meal, ye ken–but—-‘

‘Dinna fash her aboot me, Uncle Purdie.’

‘Oh, but it–it’s necessary to get her doon here. She’ll maybe be able to break–I meant for to say—-‘ Mr. Purdie stopped short and wiped perspiration from his face.

‘Jist a meenute,’ he said abruptly, and bolted upstairs.

Macgregor gazed after the retreating burly figure. Never before had he seen his uncle nervous. Was Aunt Purdie not so well? It was news to hear of her napping in the middle of the day. Then a likelier explanation dawned on Macgregor, and he smiled to himself. Uncle Purdie had been too shy to mention it, and now he had retired simply to allow of Christina’s coming down by herself. So Macgregor prepared to meet his love.

And while he meditated, his aunt and uncle appeared together.

‘Yer aunt’ll explain,’ said Mr. Purdie, looking most unhappy. ‘I couldna dae it.’

‘How do you do, Macgregor?’ said Aunt Purdie, shaking hands with stiff kindliness. ‘I am delighted to perceive you in Aberdeen. But what a deplorable catastrophe!–what a dire calamity!–what an ironical mishap!—-‘

‘She means—-‘ began Mr. Purdie, noting his nephew’s puzzled distress.

‘Hush, Robert! Allow me. I must break it gently to the boy. What a cruel fiascio!–what a vexatious disappintment!—-‘

‘Whaur’s Christina?’ Macgregor demanded.

‘Courage, boy!’ said Aunt Purdie in lofty tones. ‘Remember you are a sojer–soldier–of the Queen–or rather, King!’

‘But—-‘

‘Christina left for Glasgow per the 1.10 p.m. train, one short hour before you arrived.’

‘Weel, I’m—-‘

‘She decided very suddenly this morning. She did not hand me the letter, or p.c., for my perusual, but I understood her to observe that Miss Tod was not feeling so able and desired her presence. We were real sorry to let her go—-‘

‘Ma impression,’ Mr. Purdie put in, ‘is that she was wearyin’ for her lad. But for ill-luck this is the maist confounded, dampest—-‘

‘Robert, behave yourself!’

‘Weel, it’s a fair sickener. But there’s nae use talkin’ aboot it. Come awa’, lad, an’ ha’e something to eat. Ye canna keep up yer heart on a toom kyte.’

They were very kind to him and pressed him to remain overnight, but he was bent on leaving by the 3.40 express, which is due at Glasgow about 7.30. With good luck, he told himself, he might catch Christina at Miss Tod’s. Meanwhile youth and health compelled him to enjoy his dinner, during which Aunt Purdie insisted on refunding the cost of his futile journey.

‘Ye’re ower guid to me,’ he said awkwardly.

‘Not at all, not at all, Macgregor. It is quite unmentionable,’ she returned with a majestic wave. ‘Robert, give Macgregor some of your choice cigars.’

In the train he smoked one of them, but finding it a trifle heady, preserved the rest for presentation to his sergeant, whom he greatly admired.

* * * * *

At 5.30 Christina was in Glasgow. Mrs. Purdie had commissioned her to deliver two small parcels–‘presents from Aberdeen’–to Macgregor’s sister and little brother, and she decided to fulfil the errand before going home. Perhaps the decision was not unconnected with a hope of obtaining some news of Macgregor. His postcard had worried her. She felt she had gone too far and wanted to tell him so. She would write to him the moment she got home, and let her heart speak out for once. Pride was in abeyance. She was all tenderness.

At the Robinson’s house she received a warm welcome. Mrs. Robinson had almost got over her secret fear of her future daughter-in-law. Jeannie admired her intensely, and wee Jimsie frankly loved her. Aunt Purdie’s were not the only gifts she delivered.

‘Ye’re hame suner nor ye intended,’ said Mrs. Robinson, during tea, which was partaken of without Mr. Robinson, who was ‘extra busy’ over munitions. ‘Was Miss Tod wantin’ ye?’

‘Macgreegor was wantin’ her,’ piped Jimsie. ‘So was I.’

‘Whisht, Jimsie,’ Jeannie murmured, blushing more than Christina.

‘We jist got hame frae Rothesay last nicht,’ said Mrs. Robinson, ‘so we ha’ena seen the laddie for a while.’

‘He hasna wrote this week,’ remarked Jeannie. ‘But of course _you’ll_ ha’e heard frae him, Christina’–this with respectful diffidence.

‘He’s been busy at the shooting’ Christina replied, wishing she had more news to give.

‘I wisht I had a gun,’ observed Jimsie. ‘I wud shoot the whuskers aff auld Tirpy. Jings, I wud that!’

‘Dinna boast,’ said his mother.

‘What wud you shoot, Christina, if you had a gun?’

‘I think I wud practise on a cocoa-nut, Jimsie,’ she said, with a small laugh.

After tea Mrs. Robinson took Christina into the parlour while Jeannie tidied up. Presently the door bell rang, and Jimsie rushed to meet the postman.

‘It’s for Macgreegor,’ he announced, returning and handing a parcel to his mother.

‘I wonder wha’s sendin’ the laddie socks,’ she said, feeling it. ‘I best open it an’ put his name on them. Maybe they’re frae Mistress McOstrich.’ She removed the string and brown paper. ‘Vera nice socks— a wee thing to the lairge side–but vera nice socks, indeed. But wha—-‘

‘Here’s a letter!’ cried Jimsie, extracting a half-sheet of white paper from the crumpled brown, and giving it to his dear Christina.

In bold, untidy writing she read–

‘With fondest love from Maggie.’

XVIII

PITY THE POOR PARENTS!

‘It’s a peety Macgreegor didna see his intended the nicht,’ Mr. Robinson observed when his son, after a couple of hours at the parental hearth, had gone to bed, ‘but we canna help trains bein’ late.’

Mrs. Robinson felt that it was perhaps just as well the two young people had not met that night, but refrained from saying so. ‘Hoo dae ye think Macgreegor’s lookin,’ John?’ she asked after a pause.

‘I didna notice onything wrang wi’ him. He hadna a great deal to say for hissel’; but that’s naething new. Queer hoo a noisy, steerin’ wean like he was, grows into a quiet, douce young man.’

‘He’s maybe no as douce as ye think,’ said Lizzie under her breath.

‘What’s that?’

‘Naething, John.’ She sighed heavily.

‘What’s wrang, wife?’

‘I was wishin’ we had a niece called Maggie. . . . I suppose it’s nae use askin’ if ye ever heard o’ Macgreegor ha’ein’ an acquaintance o’ that name.’

‘Maggie? Weel, it’s no what ye would call a unique name. But what—-‘

‘Listen, John. When Christina was here the day, a wee paircel cam’ for Macgreegor, an’ when I opened it, there was a pair o’ socks wi’–wi’ fondest love from Maggie.’

‘Hurray for Maggie!

‘But, John, Christina read the words!’

‘Oho!’ John guffawed. ‘She wudna like that–eh?’

‘Man, what are ye laughin’ at? Ye ken Christina’s terrible prood.’

‘No ony prooder nor Macgreegor is o’ her. Lizzie.’

‘That’s no what I meant. Christina wud never put up wi’ Macgreegor lookin’ at anither lass.’

‘Weemen was born jealous; but it’s guid for them.’

‘John Robi’son! ha’e ye the face to tell me ye wud approve o’ Macgreegor cairryin’ on wi’ anither lass when he’s engaged to Christina?’

‘Of course I wudna exac’ly approve o’ it.’ Mr. Robinson scratched his head. ‘But surely ye’re raisin’ an awfu’ excitement ower a pair o’ socks.’

‘It wasna the socks, ye stupid: it was the fondest love!’

John laughed again, but less boisterously,

‘Maggie’s no blate, whaever she is. Did ye no speir at Macgreegor aboot her?’

‘Oh, man! ha’e ye nae sense?’ I jist tied up the paircel again an’ left it on his bed.’

‘Weel, that ends it,’ John said comfortably. ‘But’–with a wink–‘let it be a lesson to ye never to tamper wi’ yer son’s correspondence. Ye’re pretty sure to find mair nor ye expec’.’

Mrs. Robinson clasped her hands. ‘Oh, dear! hoo can ye joke aboot it? What if Christina breaks her engagement.’

‘What?’ he cried, suddenly alarmed. ‘Break her engagement! Surely ye dinna mean that! Did she say onything? Did she seem offended? Did she—-‘

‘Never a word–but her look was different. But whatever stupid thing the laddie may ha’e done, his heart’s set on Christina. It wud break his heart if—-‘

‘This is bad,’ said John, all dismayed. ‘I didna think it wud be that serious. But I’ll tell ye what I’ll dae, Lizzie. I’ll gang the morn and see Christina an’ tell her—-‘

‘What’ll ye tell her?’

‘Dear knows! What wud ye say yersel’?’

‘Neither you nor me can say onything. Macgreegor’ll ha’e to explain–if he can.’

Mr. Robinson groaned, then brightened. ‘I yinst had a cousin called Maggie,’ he said; ‘unfortunately she’s been deid for fifteen year. Still—-‘

‘It’s time ye was in yer bed, John. Ye canna dae onything, ma man, excep’ hope for the best.’

* * * * *

At dead of night–

‘Lizzie!’

Silence.

‘_Lizzie_!’

‘Eh?–what is ‘t, John?’

‘I was thinkin’, wife; I was thinkin’ it’s no sae bad since her name’s Maggie. Ye see, if it had been Henrietta, or Dorothea, or—-‘

‘Mercy! Are ye talkin’ in yer sleep?’

‘I was gaun for to say that a Henrietta an’ so forth wud be easier traced nor a Maggie, Maggies bein’ as common as wulks at Dunoon, whereas—-‘

‘D’ye imagine Christina–oh, dinna be silly, man!’

‘But, Maggie–I mean Lizzie—-‘

‘Oh, for ony favour gang to sleep an’ rest yer brains.’

* * * * *

When Macgregor, alone save for the slumbering Jimsie, had opened the parcel he muttered savagely: ‘Oh, dash it! I wish she had kep’ her rotten socks to hersel’!’–and stuffed the gift behind the chest of drawers. The message he tore into a hundred fragments. Then he went to bed and slept better, perhaps, than he deserved. He expected there would be a letter in the morning, for Christina had left no message with his mother.

But there was no letter, so, after breakfast, he made a trip to the camp on the chance, and in the hope, that one might be lying there. Another blow! Managing to dodge Willie, he hurried home to meet the second morning delivery. Nothing again! . . . His mother’s anxious questions as to his health irritated him, and he so far lost his temper as to ask his sister why she was wearing a face like a fiddle. Poor Jeannie! For half the night she had been weeping for her hero and wishing the most awful things for the unknown Maggie.

‘Ye’ll be back for yer denner, laddie?’ his mother called after him as he left the house.

‘I dinna ken,’ he replied over his shoulder.

Mrs. Robinson felt that her worst forebodings were about to be realized.

‘Never again!’ she muttered in the presence of her daughter, who was helping her with the housework.

‘What, mither?’

‘Never again will I open a paircel that’s no addressed to me.’

‘But it–it might ha’e been a–a fish,’ said Jeannie, who would have sought to comfort the most sinful penitent in the world. ‘Some girls,’ she went on, ‘dinna mean onything special by “fondest love.” They dinna mean onything mair nor “kind regairds.”‘

Mrs. Robinson sighed. ‘I wud gi’e something if it had been a fish wi’ kind regairds. I wonder what he did wi’ the socks.’

‘I got them at the back o’ the chest o’ drawers. Weel, mither, that proves he doesna care for her.’

‘That’s no the p’int, dearie.’ Mrs. Robinson paused in her work. ‘I’m beginnin’ to think I should ha’e tell’t him aboot the paircel bein’ open when Christina was here. It’s maybe no fair to let him gang to her—-‘

‘I’ll run efter him,’ said Jeannie promptly. ‘I’ll maybe catch him afore he gets to Miss Tod’s shop.’

‘Ay; run, Jeannie; run as quick’s ye can!’

So Jeannie threw off her apron, tidied her hair with a couple of touches, and flew as though a life depended on her speed.

And, panting, she came in sight of Miss Tod’s shop just in time–just in time to see the beloved kilted figure disappear into the doorway.

XIX

A SERIOUS REVERSE

The fact that Christina had not written was a paralyzing blow to Macgregor’s self-confidence and left him altogether uncertain of his ground. For the time being his sense of guilt as well as that of injury was almost swamped by the awful dread that she had simply grown tired of him. He entered the shop with foreboding–and received another blow.

A smartly dressed young man was lounging at the counter, apparently basking in Christina’s smiles. As a matter of fact, the young man was merely choosing a notebook, and until the moment of Macgregor’s entrance had been treated with the slightly haughty politeness which Christina made a point of administering to males under fifty. But with amazing abruptness she became so charming that the young man, a sensitive, susceptible creature, decided that an ordinary penny note-book would not do.

‘Well,’ said Christina sweetly, ‘here are some at twopence, threepence and sixpence. The sixpenny ones are extremely reliable.’

After some desultory conversation in low tones, during which Macgregor writhed with frequently averted gaze, the young man chose a sixpenny one and put down a florin, regretfully remarking that he had to catch a confounded train.

With a delicious smile Christina handed him his change, and with a graceful salute he fled without counting it. Immediately the door had closed Christina realized that she had given him one and ninepence. A small matter at such a time, yet it may have been the last straw. She had no word for Macgregor as he came to the counter, his uncertainty increased by that delicious smile given to another.

‘Weel, ye’ve got back,’ was all he could utter, and her attitude stopped him in the first movement of offering his hand.

‘Yesterday afternoon,’ she returned coldly.

‘Ay, I ken. I wish ye had sent me word,’ he managed to say after a slight pause.

‘It did not seem necessary. I suppose your mother told you.’

‘I heard it first frae Aunt Purdie. I missed ye by less nor an ‘oor. It was gey hard lines.’

Christina stared.

‘I got leave yesterday mornin’ an’ catched the first train to Aberdeen—-‘

‘Oh! . . . What on earth took you to Aberdeen?’

‘Christina,’ he exclaimed, ‘dinna speak like that! I gaed to Aberdeen because I couldna thole it ony mair.’

‘Thole what?’

‘Oh, ye ken! . . . Maybe I had nae business to be vexed at ye for gaun wi’ Aunt Purdie, but oh, Christina dear, I wisht ye hadna gaed.’

He dropped his gaze and continued: ‘I’m tellin’ ye I gaed to Aberdeen because something seemed to ha’e come betwixt us, because I—-‘ He stuck. Confession in the face of stem virtue is not so easy, after all.

‘Pity you had the long journey,’ she said airily, ‘but you ought to have stopped for a day or two when you were there. Aberdeen is a delightful city.’ She turned and surveyed the shelves above her.

His look then would have melted the heart of any girl, except this one who loved him.

‘Christina,’ he said piteously, ‘it wasna a’ ma fau’t.’

Leisurely she faced him.

‘May I ask what you are referring to?’

‘Ye never said ye was sorry to leave me; yer letters wasna like ye, an’ I didna ken what to think. An’ then the cocoa-nut fairly put the lid on. I tell ye, a chap has to dae _something_ when a girl treats him like that.’

‘Has he?’

He winced. ‘But I forgive ye—-‘

‘Thanks!’

‘–because I’m gaun to tell ye a’ aboot it, Christina, an’ ask ye kindly to forgive me. Ay, I’m gaun to tell ye everything–everything! But I canna think,’ he blundered on, ‘I’m sayin’, I canna think hoo I happened to get yer monkey up to begin wi’—-‘

‘Excuse me!’ she cried, indignant. ‘My monkey up, indeed!’

‘Weel, maybe it wasna exac’ly yer monkey up; but I want to ken what way ye didna write a nicer letter afore ye gaed awa’. Nae doobt ye was in a hurry, but it jist seemed as if ye didna care a button for me. Maybe ma letter to you wasna the thing, either, but I was that hurt when I wrote it, an’ ye might ha’e understood hoo I was feelin’. Christina, tell me what was wrang that ye gaed awa’ like yon. Was ye–was ye fed up wi’ me?’

Christina took up a pencil and began to spoil it with a patent sharpener. ‘Really, it is not worth while discussing,’ she said.

‘What? No worth while? Oh, hoo can ye say a thing like that! . . . But maybe I best tell ye ma ain story first.’

‘Many thanks. But I’m afraid I’m not deeply interested in any story of yours.’ She was almost sorry the next moment. It was just as if she had struck him.

Presently he recovered a little. ‘Christina,’ he said quietly, ‘that’s no true.’

‘Hoo daur ye!’ she cried, forgetting her ‘fine English’ as well as her haughty pose.

‘If it was true, it wud mean that ye’ve been judgin’ me unfair, kennin’ it was unfair, an’ I’ll never believe ye wud dae that. . . . So, Christina dear, listen to me an’ gi’e me a chance.’

‘Oh, what’s the use,’ she sighed with sudden weariness, ‘what’s the use o’ pretendin’, Macgreegor?’

‘Wha’s pretendin’?’

‘You! What’s the use o’ pretendin’ ye’re hurt? Fine ye ken I’m no the–the only girl in the world.’

‘There’s no anither like ye!’

‘Weel,’ she said drily, ‘that means variety, does it no?’ She drew a long breath and moved back from the counter. ‘I want to be as fair as I can, so perhaps I’d best ask ye a straight question.’

‘Ask it!’ he said eagerly.

‘Wha’s Maggie?’

He was taken aback, but less so than she had expected, and possibly that increased her bitterness.

‘She’s a girl,’ he began.

‘I could ha’e guessed that much. What sort o’ girl?’ she demanded, and wished she had held her tongue.

‘She–she’s kin’ o’ fat—-‘

‘Fat!’ Christina uttered the word with as much disgust as she would have evinced had she been handed a pound of streaky bacon without the paper. ‘How delightful! Anything else in the way of charms?’

‘Christina, gi’e me a chance, an’ I’ll tell ye a’ aboot it.’

‘Not another word! How long have you enjoyed the young lady’s acquaintance?’

‘Only a couple o’ evenin’s, but—-‘

‘Case of love at first sight, I suppose!’

He flared up. ‘If ye hadna left me I wud never ha’e met her. If ye had wrote me a dacent letter—-‘

‘Whisht, man!’ she said in momentary pity. ‘Ye’re talkin’ like a wean.’

‘I canna help it. I’m that fond o’ ye. An’ it’s no as if I had done a black crime. It was a pure accident—-‘

‘Jist like a penny novel,’ she interrupted merciless again. ‘Weel, I’m sure ye’re welcome to ha’e as mony girls as ye like–only, ye’ll ha’e to leave me oot. That’s a’!’ She took out her purse and from it something small which, stepping forward, she laid on the counter near him. Her engagement ring!

After a moment of strained silence–‘Christina!’ he gasped; ‘Christina! ye canna mean it serious!’

‘Good-bye,’ she said stiffly, stepping back.

‘But–but ye ha’ena heard ma story. It’s no fair—-‘

‘Oh,’ she cried harshly, ‘dinna keep on at that tune!’

All at once he drew himself up. ‘Noo I see what ye mean,’ he said in an almost even voice. ‘Ye had made up yer mind to be quit o’ me. Still, it wud ha’e been honester to say ye was fed up to ma face. Weel, I’m no blamin’ ye, an’ I canna force ye to listen to ma story, no that it wud be worth ma while noo to shame masel’ wi’ the tellin’. I’ll no even ask ye hoo ye cam’ to hear aboot Maggie. Maggie’s jist an or’nar’ girl, an’ I’m jist an or’nar’ chap that done a stupid thing because he couldna think what else to dae. Weel, ye’ll sune forget me, an’ maybe I’ll sune forget you–wi’ the help o’ a bullet—-‘

‘Oh, dinna!’ she whispered.

‘An’ as for this’–he picked up the ring and let it drop on the floor–‘to hell wi’ sich nonsense!’–and ground it under his heel. ‘So long!’ he said, and went out quickly.

XX

THE REAL THING AT LAST

For an appreciable number of seconds after the door had closed Christina continued to gaze in its direction, her head well up, her face stern and rather pale. Then, quite suddenly, her bosom gave a quick heave, her lips parted, trembling, her eyes blinked, her whole attitude became lax. But she was not going to cry; certainly not! She was far too angry for tears; angry with herself no less than Macgregor. He had actually departed without being dismissed; worse still, he had had the last word! An observer–the thought struck her–would have assumed that she, weak wretch, had humbly allowed him to go and leave her in the wrong! Her maiden pride had somehow failed her, for she ought to have sent him forth crushed. And yet, surely, she had hurt, punished, humiliated him. Oh, no doubt of that! And for a moment her illogical heart wavered. She drew out her hanky, muttering ‘how I hate him!’–and blew her pretty nose. Then she clenched her hands and set her teeth. Then she went lax again. Then–oh, dear! he had even insulted her by leaving her to pick up the cast-off ring!–for, of course, she could not leave it there for Miss Tod or a customer to see.

Haughtily she moved round the counter and with scornful finger-tips took up the tiny wreckage of a great hope. The gold was twisted and bruised, the little pearls were loose in their places. All at once she felt a horrid pain in her throat. . . .

Miss Tod appeared, fresh from the joys of strong tea.

‘Oh, lassie, ha’e ye hurted yersel’?’

Christina choked, recovered herself and cried: ‘I’ve sold a blighter a sixpenny notebook for threepence, an’ I’ll never get over it as long as I live. B–but I hope that’ll no be long!’

Just then Heaven sent a customer.

* * * * *

And perhaps Heaven sent the telegram that Macgregor found on his return home, rather late in the afternoon. The war has changed many things and people, but mothers most of all. Mrs. Robinson made no mention of the ‘extra special’ dinner prepared so vainly in her son’s honour. ‘Yer fayther missed ye,’ was her only reference to his absence from the meal.

The telegram was an order to return to duty. The mother and sister saw his eyes change, his shoulders stiffen.

‘Maybe something’s gaun to happen at last,’ he said; and almost in the same breath, though in a different voice–‘Christina’s finished wi’ me. It was ma ain fau’t. Ye needna speak aboot it. I–I’m no heedin’–greatly.’ He cleared his throat. ‘I’ll awa’ up to the works an’ say guid-bye to father. Jimsie can come, if he likes. Ye needna tell him the noo–what I tell’t ye.’

Jimsie, summoned from play, was proud to go with his big brother. He was ill next day owing to a surfeit of good things consumed at high pressure, but not too ill to discuss what he would purchase with the half-crown that seemed to have stuck to his hot little paw.

Back from the works, Macgregor found tea awaiting him. His mother and sister were not a little relieved by his cheerfulness, though they were to doubt its sincerity later. But the boy had never made a greater effort for the sake of those who loved him than in that little piece of dissembling.

The parting was brief. An embrace, a kiss, a word or two that meant little yet all–and he was out of the home.

His laugh, slightly subdued, came up the well of the staircase–‘Maybe it’s anither false alarm!’

‘They looked over the rail, mute but trying to smile, and saw the last of him–a hurrying sturdy, boyish figure, kilt swinging and hand aloft in final farewell.

His route took him through the street of Miss Tod’s shop. It was characteristic of Macgregor that he did not choose another and less direct course. He neither hesitated nor looked aside as he marched past the shop. The sense of injustice still upheld him. ‘She never gi’ed me a chance!’ . . . And so back to Duty.

* * * * *

Not more than five minutes later Private William Thomson came along in hot haste and banged into the shop.

‘Macgreegor no here?’ he demanded, and looked astounded.

‘No,’ answered Christina, without laying down the book she had been trying to read.

‘Jist left ye?’

‘No.’

‘When did ye see him?’

‘This morning.’

‘Gor! I could ha’e bet onything I wud ha’e catched him here. He had jist left the hoose when I—-‘

‘Why are you so excited?’ she coldly inquired.

‘Me? I’m no excited. Jist been canoodlin’ wi’ ma aunt. She