Penelope's Progress/Chapter 11
We were to make our bow to the Lord High Commissioner and the Marchioness of Heatherdale in the evening, and we were in a state of republican excitement at 22, Breadalbane Terrace.
Francesca had surprised us by refusing to be presented at this semi-royal Scottish court. "Not I," she said. "The Marchioness represents the Queen; we may discover, when we arrive, that she has raised the standards of admission, and requires us to 'back out' of the throne-room. I don't propose to do that without London training. Besides, I detest crowds, and I never go to my own President's receptions; and I have a headache, anyway, and I don't feel like coping with the Reverend Ronald to-night!" (Lady Baird was to take us under her wing, and her nephew was to escort us, Sir Robert being in Inveraray.)
"Sally, my dear," I said, as Francesca left the room with a bottle of smelling-salts somewhat ostentatiously in evidence, "methinks the damsel doth protest too much. In other words, she devotes a good deal of time and discussion to a gentleman whom she heartily dislikes. As she is under your care, I will direct your attention to the following points:—
"Ronald Macdonald is a Scotsman; Francesca disapproves of international alliances.
"He is a Presbyterian; she is a Swedenborgian.
"His father was a famous old school doctor; Francesca is a homœopathist.
"He is serious; Francesca is gay.
"I think, under all the circumstances, their acquaintance will bear watching. Two persons so utterly dissimilar, and, so far as superficial observation goes, so entirely unsuited to each other, are quite likely to drift into marriage unless diverted by watchful philanthropists."
"Nonsense!" returned Salemina brusquely. "You think because you are under the spell of the tender passion yourself that other people are in constant danger. Francesca detests him."
"Who told you so?"
"She herself," triumphantly.
"Salemina," I said pityingly, "I have always believed you a spinster from choice; don't lead me to think that you have never had any experience in these matters! The Reverend Ronald has also intimated to me as plainly as he dared that he cannot bear the sight of Francesca. What do I gather from this statement? The general conclusion that if it be true, it is curious that he looks at her incessantly."
"Francesca would never live in Scotland," remarked Salemina feebly.
"Not unless she were asked, of course," I replied.
"He would never ask her."
"Not unless he thought he had a chance of an affirmative answer."
"Her father would never allow it."
"Her father allows what she permits him to allow. You know that perfectly well."
"What shall I do about it, then?"
"What shall we do about it?"
"Let Nature have her own way."
"I don't believe in Nature."
"Don't be profane, Salemina, and don't be unromantic, which is worse; but if you insist, trust in Providence."
"I would rather trust Francesca's hard heart."
"The hardest hearts melt if sufficient heat be applied. Did I take you to Newhaven and read you 'Christie Johnstone' on the beach for naught? Don't you remember Charles Reade said that the Scotch are icebergs, with volcanoes underneath; thaw the Scotch ice, which is very cold, and you shall get to the Scotch fire, warmer than any sun of Italy or Spain. I think Mr. Macdonald is a volcano."
"I wish he were extinct," said Salemina petulantly, "and I wish you wouldn't make me nervous."
"If you had any faculty of premonition, you wouldn't have waited for me to make you nervous."
"Some people are singularly omniscient."
"Others are singularly deficient"—And at this moment Susanna Crum came in to announce Miss Jean Dalziel, who had come to see sights with us.
It was our almost daily practice to walk through the Old Town, and we were now familiar with every street and close in that densely crowded quarter. Our quest for the sites of ancient landmarks never grew monotonous, and we were always reconstructing, in imagination, the Cowgate, the Canongate, the Lawnmarket, and the High Street, until we could see Auld Reekie as it was in bygone centuries. In those days of continual war with England, people crowded their dwellings as near the Castle as possible, so floor was piled upon floor and flat upon flat, families ensconcing themselves above other families, the tendency being ever skyward. Those who dwelt on top had no desire to spend their strength in carrying down the corkscrew stairs matter which would descend by the force of gravity if pitched from the window or door; so the wayfarer, especially after dusk, would be greeted with cries of "Get out o' the gait!" or "Gardy loo!" which was in the French "Gardez l'eau," and which would have been understood in any language, I fancy, after a little experience. The streets then were filled with the débris flung from a hundred upper windows, while certain ground-floor tenants, such as butchers and candlemakers, contributed their full share to the fragrant heaps. As for these too seldom used narrow turnpike stairs, imagine the dames of fashion tilting their vast hoops and silken show-petticoats up and down in them!
That swine roamed at will in these Elysian fields is to be presumed, since we have this amusing picture of three High Street belles and beauties in the "Traditions of Edinburgh:"—
"So easy were the manners of the great, fabled to be so stiff and decorous," says the author, "that Lady Maxwell's daughter Jane, who afterward became the Duchess of Gordon, was seen riding a sow up the High Street, while her sister Eglantine (afterwards Lady Wallace of Craigie) thumped lustily behind with a stick."
No wonder, in view of all this, that King James VI., when about to bring home his "darrest spous" Anne of Denmark, wrote to the Provost, "For God's sake see a' things are richt at our hame-coming; a king with a new-married wife doesna come hame ilka day."
Had it not been for these royal home-comings and visits of distinguished foreigners, now and again aided by something still more salutary, an occasional outbreak of the plague, the easy-going authorities would never have issued any "cleansing edicts," and the still easier-going inhabitants would never have obeyed them. It was these dark, tortuous wynds and closes, nevertheless, that made up the Court End of Old Edinbro'; for some one writes in 1530, "Via vaccarum in quâ habitant patricii et senatores urbis" (The nobility and chief senators of the city dwell in the Cowgate). And as for the Canongate, this Saxon gaet or way of the Holyrood canons, it still sheltered in 1753 "two dukes, sixteen earls, two dowager countesses, seven lords, seven lords of session, thirteen baronets, four commanders of the forces in Scotland, and five emment men,"—fine game indeed for Mally Lee!
"A' doun alang the Canongate
Were beaux o' ilk degree;
And mony ane turned round to look
At bonny Mally Lee.
And we're a' gaun east an' west,
We're a' gaun agee,
We're a' gaun east an' west
Courtin' Mally Lee!"
Every corner bristles with memories. Here is the Stamp Office Close, from which the lovely Susanna, Countess of Eglinton, was wont to issue on Assembly nights; she, six feet in height, with a brilliantly fair complexion and a "face of the maist bewitching loveliness." Her seven daughters and stepdaughters were all conspicuously handsome, and it was deemed a goodly sight to watch the long procession of eight gilded sedan-chairs pass from the Stamp Office Close, bearing her and her stately brood to the Assembly Room, amid a crowd that was "hushed with respect and admiration to behold their lofty and graceful figures step from the chairs on the pavement."
Here itself is the site of those old Assemblies presided over at one time by the famous Miss Nicky Murray, a directress of society affairs, who seems to have been a feminine premonition of Count d'Orsay and our own McAllister. Rather dull they must have been, those old Scotch balls, where Goldsmith saw the ladies and gentlemen in two dismal groups divided by the length of the room.
"The Assembly Close received the fair—
Order and elegance presided there—
Each gay Right Honourable had her place,
To walk a minuet with becoming grace.
No racing to the dance with rival hurry,
Such was thy sway, O famed Miss Nicky Murray!"
It was half past nine in the evening when Salemina and I drove to Holyrood, our humble cab-horse jogging faithfully behind Lady Baird's brougham, and it was the new experience of seeing Auld Reekie by lamplight that called up these gay visions of other days,—visions and days so thoroughly our mental property that we could not help resenting the fact that women were hanging washing from the Countess of Eglinton's former windows, and popping their unkempt heads out of the Duchess of Gordon's old doorway.
The Reverend Ronald is so kind! He enters so fully into our spirit of inquiry, and takes such pleasure in our enthusiasms! He even sprang lightly out of Lady Baird's carriage and called to our "lamiter" to halt while he showed us the site of the Black Turnpike, from whose windows Queen Mary saw the last of her kingdom's capital.
"Here was the Black Turnpike, Miss Hamilton!" he cried; "and from here Mary went to Loch Leven, where you Hamiltons and the Setons came gallantly to her help. Don't you remember the 'far ride to the Solway sands'?"
I looked with interest, though I was in such a state of delicious excitement that I could scarce keep my seat.
"Only a few minutes more, Salemina," I sighed, "and we shall be in the palace courtyard; then a probable half-hour in crowded dressing-rooms, with another half-hour in line, and then, then we shall be making our best republican bow in the Gallery of the Kings! How I wish Mr. Beresford and Francesca were with us! What do you suppose was her real reason for staying away? Some petty disagreement with our young minister, I am sure. Do you think the dampness is taking the curl out of our hair? Do you suppose our gowns will be torn to ribbons before the Marchioness sees them? Do you believe we shall look as well as anybody? Privately, I think we must look better than anybody; but I always think that on my way to a party, never after I arrive."
Mrs. M'Collop had asserted that I was "bonnie eneuch for ony court," and I could not help wishing that "mine ain dear Somebody" might see me in my French frock embroidered with silver thistles, and my "shower bouquet" of Scottish bluebells tied loosely together. Salemina wore pinky-purple velvet; a real heather color it was, though the Lord High Commissioner would probably never note the fact.
When we had presented our cards of invitation at the palace doors, we joined the throng and patiently made our way up the splendid staircases, past powdered lackeys without number, and, divested of our wraps, joined another throng on our way to the throne-room, Salemina and I pressing those cards with our names "legibly written on them" close to our palpitating breasts.
At last the moment came when, Lady Baird having preceded me, I handed my bit of pasteboard to the usher; and hearing "Miss Hamilton" called in stentorian accents, I went forward in my turn, and executed a graceful and elegant but not too profound curtsy, carefully arranged to suit the semi-royal, semi-ecclesiastical occasion. I had not divulged the fact even to Salemina, but I had worn Mrs. M'Collop's carpet quite threadbare in front of the long mirror, and had curtsied to myself so many times in its crystal surface that I had developed a sort of fictitious reverence for my reflected image. I had only begun my well-practiced obeisance when Her Grace the Marchioness, to my mingled surprise and embarrassment, extended a gracious hand and murmured my name in a particularly kind voice. She is fond of Lady Baird, and perhaps chose this method of showing her friendship; or it may be that she noticed my silver thistles and Salemina's heather-colored velvet,—they certainly deserved special recognition; or it may be that I was too beautiful to pass over in silence,—in my state of exaltation I was quite equal to the belief.
The presentation over, we wandered through the spacious apartments, leaning from the open windows to hear the music of the band playing in the courtyard below, looking at the royal portraits, and chatting with groups of friends who appeared and reappeared in the throng. Finally Lady Baird sent for us to join her in a knot of personages more and less distinguished, who had dined at the palace, and who were standing behind the receiving party in a sort of sacred group. This indeed was a ground of vantage, and one could have stood there for hours, watching all sorts and conditions of men and women bowing before the Lord High Commissioner and the Marchioness, who, with her Cleopatra-like beauty and scarlet gown, looked like a gorgeous cardinal-flower.
Salemina and I watched the curtsying narrowly, with the view at first of improving our own obeisances for Buckingham Palace; but truth to say we got no added light, and plainly most of the people had not worn threadbare the carpets in front of their dressing-mirrors.
Suddenly we heard a familiar name announced, "Lord Colquhoun," a distinguished judge who had lately been raised to the peerage, and whom we often met at dinners; then "Miss Rowena Colquhoun;" and then, in the midst, we fancied, of an unusual stir at the entrance door—"Miss Francesca Van Buren Monroe." I involuntarily touched the Reverend Ronald's shoulder in my astonishment, while Salemina lifted her tortoise-shell lorgnette, and we gazed silently at our recreant charge.
After presentation, each person has fifteen or twenty feet of awful space to traverse in solitary and defenseless majesty; scanned meanwhile by the maids of honor (who, if they were truly honorable, would turn their eyes another way), ladies-in-waiting, the sacred group in the rear, and the Purse-Bearer himself. I had supposed that this functionary would keep the purse in his upper bureau drawer at home, when he was not paying bills, but it seems that when on processional duty he carries a bag of red velvet quite a yard long over his arm, where it looks not unlike a lady's opera-cloak. It would hold the sum total of the moneys disbursed, even if they were reduced to the standard of vulgar copper.
Under this appalling fire of inspection, some of the victims waddle, some hurry; some look up and down nervously, others glance over the shoulder as if dreading to be apprehended; some turn red, others pale, according to complexion and temperament; some swing their arms, others trip on their gowns; some twitch the buttons of a glove, or tweak a flower or a jewel. Francesca rose superior to all these weaknesses, and I doubt if the Gallery of the Kings ever served as a background for anything lovelier or more high-bred than that untitled slip of a girl from "the States." Her trailing gown of pearl-white satin fell in unbroken lustrous folds behind her. Her beautiful throat and shoulders rose in statuesque whiteness from the mist of chiffon that encircled them. Her dark hair showed a moonbeam parting that rested the eye, wearied by the contemplation of waves and frizzes fresh from the curling-tongs. Her mother's pearls hung in ropes from neck to waist, and the one spot of color about her was the single American Beauty rose she carried. There is a patriotic florist in Paris who grows these long-stemmed empresses of the rose-garden, and Mr. Beresford sends some to me every week. Francesca had taken the flower without permission, and I must say she was as worthy of it as it of her.
She curtsied deeply, with no exaggerated ceremony, but with a sort of innocent and childlike gravity, while the satin of her gown spread itself like a great blossom over the floor. Her head was bowed until the dark lashes swept her crimson cheeks; then she rose again from the heart of the shimmering lily, with the one splendid rose glowing against all her dazzling whiteness, and floated slowly across the dreaded space to the door of exit as if she were preceded by invisible heralds and followed by invisible train-bearers.
"Who is she?" we heard whispered here and there. "Look at the rose!" "Look at the pearls! Is she a princess or only an American?"
I glanced at the Reverend Ronald. I imagined he looked pale; at any rate, he was biting his under lip nervously and I believe he was in fancy laying his serious, Scottish, allopathic, Presbyterian heart at Francesca's gay, American, homœopathic, Swedenborgian feet.
"It is a pity Miss Monroe is such an ardent republican," he said, with unconcealed bitterness; "otherwise she ought to be a duchess. I never saw a head that better suited a coronet, nor, if you will pardon me, one that contained more caprices."
"It is true she flatly refused to accompany us here," I allowed, "but perhaps she has some explanation more or less silly and serviceable; meantime, I defy you to tell me she isn't a beauty, and I implore you to say nothing about its being only skin-deep. Give me a beautiful exterior, say I, and I will spend my life in making the hidden things of mind and soul conform to it; but deliver me from all forlorn attempts to make my beauty of character speak through a large mouth, breathe through a fat nose, and look at my neighbor through crossed eyes!"
Mr. Macdonald agreed with me, with some few ministerial reservations. He always agrees with me, and why he is not tortured at the thought of my being the promised bride of another, but continues to squander his affections upon a quarrelsome and unappreciative girl, is more than I can comprehend.
Francesca, escorted by Lord Colquhoun, appeared presently in our group, but Salemina did not even attempt to scold her. One cannot scold an imperious young beauty in white satin and pearls, particularly if she is leaning nonchalantly on the arm of a peer of the realm.
It seems that shortly after our departure (we had dined with Lady Baird) Lord Colquhoun had sent a note to me, requiring an answer. Francesca had opened it, and found that he offered an extra card of invitation to one of us, and said that he and his sister would gladly serve as escort to Holyrood, if desired. She had had an hour or two of solitude by this time, and was well weary of it, while the last vestige of headache disappeared under the temptation of appearing at court with all the éclat of unexpectedness. She dispatched a note of acceptance to Lord Colquhoun, summoned Mrs. M'Collop, Susanna, and the maiden Boots to her assistance, spread the trays of her Saratoga trunks about our three bedrooms, grouped all our candles on her dressing-table, and borrowed any little elegance of toilette which we chanced to have left behind. Her own store of adornments is much greater than ours, but we possess certain articles for which she has a childlike admiration: my white satin slippers embroidered with seed pearls, Salemina's pearl-topped comb, Salemina's Valenciennes handkerchief and diamond belt-clasp, my pearl frog with ruby eyes. We identified our property on her impertinent young person, and the list of her borrowings so amused the Reverend Ronald that he forgot his injuries.
"It is really an ordeal, that presentation, no matter how strong one's sense of humor may be, nor how well rooted one's democracy," chattered Francesca to a serried rank of officers who surrounded her to the total routing of the ministry. "It is especially trying if one has come unexpectedly and has no idea of what is to happen. I was agitated at the supreme moment, because, at the entrance of the throne-room, I had just shaken hands reverently with a splendid person who proved to be a footman. Of course I took him for the Commander of the Queen's Guards, or the Keeper of the Dungeon Keys, or the Most Noble Custodian of the Royal Moats, Drawbridges, and Portcullises. When he put out his hand I had no idea it was simply to waft me onward, and so naturally I shook it,—it's a mercy that I didn't kiss it! Then I curtsied to the Royal Usher, and overlooked the Lord High Commissioner altogether, having no eyes for any one but the beautiful scarlet Marchioness. I only hope they were too busy to notice my mistakes, otherwise I shall be banished from Court at the very moment of my presentation.—Do you still banish nowadays?" turning the battery of her eyes upon a particularly insignificant officer who was far too dazed to answer. "Did you see the child of ten who was next to me in line? She is Mrs. Macstronachlacher; at least that was the name on the card she carried, and she was thus announced. As they tell us the Purse-Bearer is most rigorous in arranging these functions and issuing the invitations, I presume she must be Mrs. Macstronachlacher; but if so, they marry very young in Scotland, and her skirts should really have been longer!"